Lydia, Dorcas & Phoebe
Martin Luther King, Jr.
Ruth Bader Ginsberg
Ida B. Wells
You may recognize some of these names. Others you may not. This is my personal list of people whom I would consider in the line of prophets. Perhaps there are others you would add. This list of men and women, in my opinion, have stood on the proverbial watch tower and called to us to pay attention. Through their vocations, activism, and presence, they have opened the door for others. Some have received biblical, national and international acclaim while others have been silenced, censored and lost to popular conversation. Some of were persecuted, eyed suspiciously, or outright disregarded because of their prophetic leadership. In their own ways, they were run out of town...much like Jesus was.
Regardless of their noteworthiness, they all acted out of a place of faith, hope and love. They responded to God, the needs of others, and the call to bring healing into the world because they believed and acted upon Jesus’ command that we love one another.
Last week and continuing into this week, the Gospel lesson from Luke had Jesus reading the scripture from Isaiah to those gathered at the synagogue. In the passage Jesus read from, he proclaimed that he was sent to tell the good news, heal the blind, set free the captive and the oppressed, and to tell of the year of God’s favor. In reading that passage from Isaiah and then telling those gathered that day that “this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing”, he is claiming his voice as a prophet. He is speaking in love to those who had gathered around him, and yet, the response was to chase him out of town.
So what went wrong? What is it about his message of liberation and hope, a message spoken out of love, a proclamation to pay attention and care for one another...what is it that angered so many people? What were they afraid of?
As theologian David Ostendorf explains, “The good news that God bears through Jesus is...not the narrative [the priests and scribes] were used to, not what they expected…” (Feasting the Word, Year C, Vol 1, Kindle Edition).
You see, the stories Jesus told pointed to how God often uses the “outsider” to bring about the Kingdom. God used Elijah and Elisha to proclaim through word and action to a widow and a leper God’s grace and healing, and then they went on to make believers out of others from their own belief and transformation. God was doing something new through these people. They weren’t the local religious leaders and priests, but were people who had experienced transformation and love. And when Jesus tells this story in the synagogue, he is reminding the religious elite that this is how the Kingdom of God works…new things happen through the most unlikely people; not necessarily through appropriate temple sacrifices and public acts of piety.
What Jesus is offering to those people gathered in the synagogue that day was a new narrative of hope and justice. It was and continues to be a narrative of a “dynamic, raucous God who jars us [from our complacency and] provides us the opportunity to partner in the creation [of something new that is] unfolding in our midst.” (Ostendorf, Feasting the Word, Kindle Edition)
And that new narrative can be really scary for some people.
Let’s go back to my list for a moment and take a look at some of the other folks God has used to create this new narrative…
Lydia, Dorcas and Phoebe...unless you attended the midweek Eucharist this past Wednesday, those names might not be altogether familiar. Lydia was a prosperous cloth merchant in the days of the early church who provided food and lodging to Paul and Timothy and her house was used as one of the first gathering places for early Christians. Phoebe was one of the first “deacons” of the church, also providing housing and sustenance to Paul and his congregation. Dorcas (also known as Tabitha) was known for her charity and good works. Without these three women, and others like them, the early church may not have survived.
Desmond Tutu...Nobel Peace Prize winner, activist against apartheid in South Africa, and first black Archbishop of Cape Town, Desmond has served as the voice of the voiceless in the United Nations on issues of HIV/AIDS and TB, he has supported Gene Robinson and other leaders in the gay rights movement, has advocated for an end to violence against women, and is known as a “Climate Ally”. Speaking to 800 people at St John's Smith Square in London on the lecture's topic "Is violence ever justified?" he talked about the process of truth and reconciliation, the transformative nature of forgiveness and the uniquely African concept of Ubuntu – 'I am me, because you are you', saying that when wars come to an end, only forgiveness enables people to fully move away from conflict. (http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/forgiveness-cannot-be-demanded-says-tutu-1972201.html)
Alla Bozarth...is a Portland native and her mother, Alvina Bozarth, was an artist and Russian émigré, who worked with Church World Service to resettle refugees throughout the nineteen-fifties, and went on to help foster international harmony through the United Nations People to People Program. Infused with her parents' spirit and vision for beneficial change and justice, Alla became the first woman to be ordained a deacon in the Episcopal Diocese of Oregon in 1971. She was one of eleven women to be ordained the first female priests in Philadelphia in 1974, which opened the door to women’s ordination in the Episcopal church. (http://woh.pdx.edu/heroine/6337)
Tissa Balasuriya...was a Sri Lankan Roman Catholic priest, who because of his refusal to recant and revise his theology in the book “Mary and Human Liberation” was charged with heresy and excommunicated in 1997. After a time of investigation, conflict, censorship, and an intense six day period of negotiations with the Catholic Church’s Apostolic Signatura, the excommunication was rescinded in 1998. In his statement on reconciliation, he said, “my life commitment has always been to endeavour to be a true disciple of Jesus Christ, to serve the Church and to work for integral human liberation, including a more just society.” (http://www.ewtn.com/library/ISSUES/ORTISSA.HTM)
For me, these individuals, continue in the tradition of offering a new narrative of God at work in the world. They point the way to a more just, more loving, and more faithful way of being in the world.
When Jesus finished reading the scroll from Isaiah and made these proclamations, the people were afraid and they ran him out of the synagogue. Jesus had invited the people into a new narrative of the Kingdom of God. He’s also inviting us into a new way of being. So what are we going to do about it? How are we going to respond to this invitation? What is the new narrative that we want to participate in with Jesus?
In the week since we last gathered, a lot has happened. We have celebrated the life of Jim Mallon, we have grieved the passing of George Kirby, and the powerball jackpot reached unprecedented heights at 1.6 billion dollars.
Now you’re probably thinking one of two things right now...either that I am the most insensitive priest you’ve ever met to talk about the passing of two of our members and the powerball jackpot in the same sentence OR that I have lost my mind because these are three completely unrelated events. But I’m going to ask you to hang in there with me for a moment.
Our gospel lesson today is the story of the wedding at Cana. It’s a fascinating story, and a difficult one to preach. There are a couple of notable things in this story from the second chapter of the Gospel of John:
--John begins the story “On the third day”...this is a literary element that calls to mind a later passage in the gospel narrative...on the third day, Jesus is raised from the dead. So the gospel writer is cluing us into the fact that something miraculous is about to happen.
--This is one of two episodes in the gospel of John that Mary is present. It serves as one bookend of the ministry of Jesus...the other being when she is present at the cross.
--This is the beginning of the public ministry of Jesus and it’s not a miracle that points to the life of the poor, the widowed, the orphaned or the outcast...it’s in the category of “nature miracles” (like walking on water or stilling the storm) and doesn’t necessarily benefit anyone...except the party guests.
And while all of this is interesting, none of it explicitly appealed to me in terms of preaching. Where is the good news in this story? That Jesus can turn water into wine--while it makes for funny pictures on the internet of mis-shelved water bottles--it’s not probably the first thing that comes to mind when we think about salvation and the Kingdom of God.
But it did make me wonder...where do we see abundance when it seems that there is only scarcity? The “gloom and doom” of the media and some of the people who are vying for candidate positions in national politics would have us believe that there is no such thing as abundance, and that where there is abundance, it must be because someone cheated, manipulate or seduced “the system”. But the story of Jesus turning water into wine is not gloom and doom, it’s not a story of manipulation or cheating...it’s the story of the beginning of public ministry, it’s the story of gifts given in love, and it’s ultimately the story of a miracle.
On January 3, in celebration of the feast of the Epiphany, I asked you to write down on notecards what gifts you have to offer. So here’s how you responded according to some themes I noted:
Compassion, love, caring, forgiveness, acceptance & understanding: 28 responses
Peace, joy, hope, kindness: 17 responses
Teaching, leadership, helpfulness: 7 responses
Time & service, friendship, devotion, responding to others in need: 15 responses
Money: 1 response
You could organize these in any way you wanted really...no one gift is better than another and all of them are necessary. If you don’t believe me, check out the list in 1 Corinthians:
Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the discernment of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. All these are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses.
So what does this list of gifts mean in the context of the gospel? Have I forgotten my ridiculous connection between the end of life and the powerball?
Here’s how they connect…
Sometimes we have to be prompted, pushed, nudged to remember that we all have gifts to offer. Jim had the gift of leadership, kindness, patience, and laughter to offer all those he worked with...whether in sports, as a school principal or working with the Boy Scouts. As a naturopath, George had the gift of healing and medicine, and a faithful friend to those who knew him. His devotion and prayer life were among his greatest spiritual gifts. Sometimes our gifts are obvious to ourselves and those around us, and sometimes they are private, hidden, or tucked away and need a little encouraging to become more public in nature. Perhaps this is what Mary was up to when she brought it to Jesus’ attention that the wine had run out...she knew he had a gift and she was encouraging him to share it...even if he did so begrudgingly at first. But his sharing--his miracle--allowed for the rejoicing and celebration of a new life between two families to continue.
And the powerball lottery...I was so amazed at how my friends and colleagues all across the country were responding to the question “what would you do if you won the powerball lottery”. Among their responses (and admittedly, this includes mine) in no particular order:
--set up a spiritual retreat center
--buy a permanent place for the homeless shelter
--make sure my parents had arrangements to be taken care of in their old age
--support arts education in the schools nationally
--create housing to be used as transitional or low-income housing
--support local charities
--support church endowments
--pay off student loan debt
--support refugee resettlement
--take a friend to lunch
None of these responses were about quitting a job, travelling around the world, and living in the biggest house one could find with the nicest car one could buy. All of the responses were about creating miracles for other people...providing for families, friends, and neighbors, providing for children, the elderly and the displaced, and ultimately working for a better community.
Isn’t that the point of gifts--to bring about the Kingdom of God? Isn’t that the point of miracles--to get glimpses of the Divine in our midst?
Yeah, it might be a stretch to connect the events of the last week to the gospel, but I’m going to go with it...To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.
Here we are again--the baptism of Jesus. Every year we read this story. Every year I wrestle with the question of why Jesus needed to be baptized. Every year, I think back to the warm water I waded into at my own baptism when I was 9. Is there anything new I could possibly say to you? I went online and looked for pictures of baptisms...loving parents holding hands, watching as their newborn is cradled in the arms of a priest or pastor, water being sprinkled on their tiny heads, adults making a profession of faith as they bend over into a baptismal font to have a jug of water poured over their heads, people wading out into rivers to be reborn in the water. It’s a strange thing--baptism. For a non-Christian, it probably makes no sense at all...what in the world could water do to or for a person...is there some kind of “magic” happening?
The Anglican or Episcopal theology of baptism, according to the Articles of Religion (which by the way are found in your prayer books beginning on page 867, and specifically speak to the theology of baptism on page 873), is a, “sign of profession, and mark of difference (from non-Christians)...[it is] a sign of Regeneration or New-Birth, whereby, as by an instrument, they that receive Baptism rightly are grafted into the Church; the promises of the forgiveness of sin, and of our adoption to be the sons [and daughters] of God by the Holy Ghost, are visibly signed and sealed; Faith is confirmed, and Grace increased by virtue of prayer unto God.” In other words, it is an outward sign of inward grace. It means we are forgiven and marked as a follower of Christ. Baptism is a big deal, and not at all “magic”.
And while all of that is important (and really, it is), what this says to me, and what the lessons from today say to me is that God loves us. And we belong to God. So for me, part of my theology of baptism is that not only is it an outward sign of inward grace, but it means that we are re-membered. And what I mean here by “re-membered” is about being put back together, being made whole, and remembering who we are and to whom we belong.
So let’s look at the lessons for today.
In the reading from Isaiah (43:1-7), two things strike me. One is in the second verse “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine” and the other is further down “For you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you”.
If you remember from last Sunday, the prophet Isaiah is speaking to a people in captivity and exile. They have been removed from their homes, overcome by Babylonians, their sons and daughters taken away, and they feel abandoned. And yet, in the midst of all this chaos and upheaval, God speaks to them through the prophet and reminds them that they are loved, protected, redeemed, and precious; words of comfort for a people in distress. And not only are they loved, but they have been called by name. Now this is significant in the ancient world. To be named by someone was a sign of “ownership” if you will. Not ownership in the sense of being a slave to, but ownership in the sense that you belong to someone who will look after you. So for these early Jews, to be named and thus belong to God meant that they were being cared for and looked after.
In the Luke text (3:15-17, 21-22) we have another “naming” story. Jesus has come to John to be baptized. And after Jesus is baptized, while he is praying, the heavens open up and the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove descends on him while these words are being spoken from above “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased”. In this moment, God names Jesus—the Beloved, and it is from this moment onward that Jesus embarks on his mission and ministry. God has claimed him as God’s own.
In Isaiah, when the people are reminded that they have been named and are loved, they are “re-membered” as children of God; they are put back together and made whole. Not that they hadn’t been, but because they had forgotten. In Luke, this is Jesus’ first direct encounter with God, and he is “re-membered” as a child of God...he is put together and made whole for the ministry he is about to do.
The celebration of Jesus’ baptism perhaps isn’t so much about a deep theological wrestling about why did Jesus need to be baptized, as it is a reminder of who we are and to whom we belong. It is so easy to get caught up in the belief that who we are is based on our resume, on our paycheck, or on our standing in the community. Those things might be a part of who we are, but more importantly, we are children of God. And it’s even easier to think that we belong to the never ending cycle of emails, text messages, phone calls, budget meetings and a whole other barrage of issues that come at us daily, but ultimately, we belong to God.
When we are baptized, or when we renew our Baptismal Covenant, we are claiming our name as “Beloved” and we are giving ourselves over to God. We are being marked for a variety of ministries--be them as teachers, advocates, offerers of hospitality, of kindness and presence. We are re-membered as part of this community and the household of God. Through baptism, we become outward signs to the world of the grace and love of Jesus Christ.
So what’s the point of hearing about Jesus’ baptism? It’s so we can be reminded of who we are and to whom we belong; it’s so we can be “re-membered”…put back together, made whole, and renewed. It’s so we can remember that we have been marked for ministry and that we are beloved.
Let us pray:
Holy God, we thank you that by water and the Holy Spirit you have re-membered us as your beloved. Sustain us, O God, in your Holy Spirit. Give us inquiring and discerning hearts, the courage to do the ministry you have called us to do and a spirit to know and love you. Amen.
The Feast of the Epiphany Jan 3, 2016
“Arise, shine for the light of Christ and the glory of the Lord has come upon you”. This is probably one of my favorite pieces of Isaiah, and it really is the theme of Epiphany.
In the reading from Isaiah, we have the expression of deep joy by the prophet in the midst of the Babylonian captivity; there is an eagerness to return home, to overcome the enemy, to once again experience the love of God. And so Isaiah tells the people essentially, “rise and shine, the day of God’s glory is here”. This is a wonderful revelation of good news. And the prophet doesn’t stop there! Not only has the day of God’s glory arrived, but people will be reunited, sons and daughters will return home, the sea will provide a bounty, and many nations will come together. Rise and shine indeed! The prophet is reminding the listener that God is grabbing hold of things and that everything is about to change…this is what an epiphany, or a revelation, is about!
In the reading from the Gospel of Matthew, we are given the account of the visit of the wise-men…the revelation of God to the Gentiles. And while this is important because it lays the groundwork of all future revelations to “outsiders”, what I find so wonderful about this text is that it reminds us of God’s universal love for everyone.
Commentators and scholars have a lot to say about traditional understandings of the visit of the magis and their gifts. The magi are representative of three non-Jewish cultures, and therefore serve as a symbolic representation of God’s revelation to the Gentiles. The gift of gold is a gift one would present to a king; the gift of frankincense is a gift one would present to a divinity…so these two gifts are symbolic of the combined nature of Jesus—both human and divine. And the gift of myrrh is a burial gift, foreshadowing the death of Jesus. These are wonderful and symbolic understandings of the magi and their gifts…if we want to keep them safely tucked away in our nativity scenes and children’s plays. And as great as the gifts of the magi were—I mean who wouldn’t want gold, frankincense and myrrh—these gifts are never as great as the gift of the Incarnation, Emmanuel, God with us. No gift that magi, or we, ever present will be equal to or surpass God’s love. And here’s the good news... God isn’t keeping score on the value or worthiness of our gifts, because really what we offer, we should offer with our whole heart…is love in return. God’s gift of the Incarnation teaches us about generosity and the power to give to others out of love. That’s the revelation…that’s the epiphany.
A few years ago Epiphany fell on a Friday. Some of us gathered together for dinner and an evening service of prayer and reflection. Part of our worship included putting candles around the creche as symbols of the gifts we have to offer God. This morning I’m going to invite us to do something similar. When you came in this morning, you were given a blank note card. If you didn’t get one, please raise your hand and an usher will bring you one. If you have a pen or pencil handy, that’s great. If you don’t, raise your hand and the usher will bring you one. You may need to share with your neighbor and that’s ok...it’s a good practice to share with one another.
On your notecard, I’d like you to write down what it is that you are giving to the world, to the community, to your friends and family, to a stranger...whoever comes to mind...what gift are you giving because you have been the recipient of God’s gift of love and forgiveness? Or another way to think about this is, what gift have you been given that you want to share with others.
Once you have that written down, we’ll pass a basket around during announcements and have your gifts brought up to the altar.
So let’s take a moment and write down our gifts and then we’ll pray.
Let us pray,
Holy one of light, unchanging God, today you reveal to people of faith the resplendent fact of the Word made flesh. Your light is strong, Your love is near; draw us beyond the limits which this world imposes, to the life where Your Spirit makes all life complete. We ask this through Christ our Lord. Amen. adapted from New Saint Joseph Sunday Missal
I don't know what the future of the church is, but I know that we will continue to be a place of sanctuary and hope, working towards healing in the world.