With excitement and trepidation, I returned to my PhD studies this semester. In the past, I’ve played it safe, taking one class at a time. However, because I took last semester off and I won’t be able to attend the summer intensive in August this year, I shored up my courage and enrolled for 6 units…I’m barely a half-time student. I’m telling you all this for two reasons. One because I wanted to thank you for your support, encouragement, prayers, smiles, and patience when I’m tired. Two because I’m taking a most amazing class titled “Spirit, Compassion and Community Activism” that has absolutely everything to do with how I understand the ministry of the church, and especially the ministry of St. Mark’s. In these first weeks of the semester, I have bragged so much about this church and the amazing people of our community, that I’m sure my classmates are already sick of me. What am I bragging about? You sharing your light with the world.
In the reading from the Prophet Isaiah, the prophet is giving the people of Israel a bit of a tongue lashing. They have become quite pleased with themselves for their piety and worship practices. However, Isaiah has taken note of the fact that this piety is really empty rituals because the people are not in good relationship with one another…they are ignoring the needs in their community and turning a blind eye to the oppressed. Some are even participating in the oppression of their neighbors! But there is good news here in Isaiah. God speaks through Isaiah to help point the people back in the right direction…God instructs the people that compassionate action that loosens the bonds of injustice and oppression puts neighbors in right relationship. Through the prophet, God tells the people that they have a light that will break into the world and that they will become agents of healing. To share light means to feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, and clothe the naked. In verse 12, God tells the people they will be known as repairers and healers.
One of my first homework assignments in this class was to define the terms which make up the course title. I defined community in three ways: We live in our community (neighborhoods, towns, cities), we are part of the community (church and organization membership), and we are a community (a gathering of individuals who share similar ideas/ideals, and support one another in hope and love). In the passage from the prophet Isaiah, God is calling the people to remember their community and understand their relationships with one another. God is calling them to be a healing light in the world.
In the reading from Psalms, the poet tells us “Happy are those…who are a light in the darkness”. Here, to be “a light” is to be merciful, gracious and righteous; to be generous and unafraid; to give freely. Like the people of Judah in the lesson from Isaiah, to worship God is to be happy, and to be happy is to fully embrace and engage the community in a healing way.
For my homework assignment, I defined “spirit” based on the Hebrew understanding of the word “ruah” which means “breath, wind or spirit”—the creative force in our universe, the life force in each of us, and the presence of the divine within each of us. The readings from the Prophet Isaiah and the Psalms make me want to add “light” to that definition…the opportunity and invitation to be an agent of healing and reconciliation in the world.
The gospel reading from Matthew is one of my favorites…you are salt, you are light. This section of Matthew is like Discipleship 101…Jesus is telling his friends what following him is all about. It’s not about power positions, it’s not about being popular, but it is about mercy, generosity and justice. Being a disciple is a little bit crazy according to Bishop Michael Curry. It calls us out of our comfort zones, it calls us to loosen the bonds of oppression, and it calls us to be in relationship with one another.
If we were to look at this text from Matthew in its original language, we’d notice two things. First of all, Jesus doesn’t ask his disciples “do you want to be the salt and light of the world” he says “you are”…this is a declarative statement. He’s giving them their identity and their mission. Secondly, the word “you” is plural…he’s talking to all of the disciples, not just one of them. Just like God in Isaiah, You—the community—have been given the mission to let your light break forth in the world, to be an agent of healing, and to be the repairer of the world.
Now being the light of the world is no easy task! We’ve already seen from Isaiah what’s involved…care for the most vulnerable, the disenfranchised, and the marginal. But we don’t have to do it alone. We’re all in this together. “You” is a plural noun…it’s a collective…it’s “all y’all”. And there are many among us who are letting their light shine brightly!
Sometimes though, it’s easier to hide under bushel baskets and in empty rituals. And we all have those moments. We get tired, burned out, overwhelmed by the light and all the needs that it illuminates. This is where it is important to remember to be compassionate…with yourself and each other. Compassion is the ability to be present to someone else’s pain and struggles without them becoming yours. Compassion with yourself is to know your limits and give yourself permission not to exceed them. This is important to keep in mind when being declared the light of the world.
Think about a candle for a moment. Sometimes the candle burns bright, lighting up the area around it. But sometimes, the candle wick gets bent out of shape and stuck in the wax and goes out. That’s ok. You let it rest. And then dig deep, straighten out the wick, and relight it.
My point is this: Don’t get stuck under the bushel basket. Be compassionate with yourself, and then reignite your light. We have a lot of work to do…our light is desperately needed in the world!
Today we celebrate the Feast of the Dedication of Jesus, also known as the Feast of the Presentation of Jesus to the Temple. Today marks 40 days since the birth of Jesus, and according to Jewish law and tradition, it was time for Mary and Joseph to take Jesus to the temple for ritual purification, and to dedicate him to a life of prayer and contemplation.
Some of you may have friends and family who are also Episcopalian, and who will tell you that today is Candlemas. This is also true, but reflective of a later tradition added by the church as an opportunity to bless the candles that will be used throughout the year.
However, today, I’m going to focus on the Feast of the Dedication.
When I was being prepared for confirmation in my 20s, I had to present to the priest a copy of my baptismal certificate. So I asked my mom to help me procure such an item, figuring it was stashed away in some file at home. Turns out I had been baptized twice…first in the Lutheran church, then in the Baptist church. Since I was baptized in the Lutheran church as an infant, the Baptist church understood this to be a “dedication” or what some might call a “christening”…hence the second baptism when I was nine in the Baptist church. Regardless of whether it was a baptism, dedication or christening, the intention was the same…I was being presented to the church and to God and dedicating myself to prayer and to do God’s work.
If I’m not wrong, most, if not all, of us here have made these same promises at some time, or had them made on our behalf. In the Book of Common Prayer, it’s these promises that are found in our Baptismal Covenant:
--to put our whole trust in, follow and obey God,
--to continue in the teaching of the apostles and the breaking of bread and the prayers,
--to persevere against evil and ask for forgiveness when we fall short,
--to proclaim the Good News by our words and by our lives,
--to serve Christ in ourselves and in others,
--to strive for justice and peace and respect the dignity of everyone.
When we are baptized, when we (or our parents) make these promises, we are dedicating our lives to God.
Now that’s the “easy” part. Saying the creed is easy. Coming to church on Sunday is easy. But when we really dedicate ourselves to God, when we really embrace the promises that we have made, we realize that being a Christian is no walk in the park!
In the gospel story from Luke today, Simeon the prophet is there at the presentation of Jesus. Not only does he recognize Jesus as the incarnate God, but he also knows that a life dedicated to God is one that will be difficult at times. He makes a prophecy to Mary, the gospel tells us, that Jesus will be the rise and fall of many and a sign to be opposed. In other words, the life ahead for Jesus will be difficult and full of contradictions. He will be proclaimed the long-awaited Messiah, but won’t meet the expectations of many in terms of that title. He will teach in synagogues, but the temple authority will despise him. He will lift up the lowly and cast down those in power. He will be a light to the nations, but will over turn tables. He will say “follow me”, but won’t tell you where he’s going. And yet, he will be doing the work he was sent to do. He will bring about the Kingdom of God.
On Wednesday, I participated in an online class being led by Bp. Michael Curry of North Carolina. I have heard Bp. Curry preach at both a friend’s ordination a few years ago, and then again in Indianapolis at General Convention in 2012. He is a dynamic preacher and really fun to listen to. On Thursday, he was presenting on topics from his new book “Crazy Christians”. For Bp. Curry, a “Crazy Christian” is someone in whom the ministry and teaching of Jesus is so vivid, that through them, God becomes visible to others. A “Crazy Christian” is someone who lives into their “true self” instead of the “false self” that has been created for them by the media and the expectations of others. At the end of the class, Bp. Curry invited people to embrace this idea of being a “Crazy Christian” and with it, all the contradictions that come along with being a person dedicated to God.
When we take seriously our dedication to God, when we take seriously those promises we make in our Baptismal Covenant, we are inviting God to become alive in us. In turn, God calls us by name and we become our true selves. This may mean speaking out against an environmental injustice happening in your community. This may mean really committing to praying when you say “of course I’ll pray for you” instead of absent-mindedly forgetting. It may mean not living up to the expectations imposed on you by others because you are living up to the calling of God. Being a “Crazy Christian” may mean turning over a few tables in order for there to be peace in the world. Yes, being a “Crazy Christian” may be one of supposed contradictions, but it also means being fully alive and present to God in a wonderful and life-giving way.
If I had stayed in the Baptist tradition, this would be the perfect place for an altar call…the invitation to come up and rededicate your life to Christ. But we’re Episcopalians, so we don’t do that. However, in a few moments, you will be invited to come before the altar and receive communion. I invite you in these moments between now and then to consider your life as it has been dedicated to God thus far. Have you truly embraced the words and promises found in the Baptismal Covenant? How have you presented your life to God and to the world, fully participating in the Kingdom of God? Are you ready to be a “Crazy Christian”?
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.