Sunday, January 31, 2010

Sermon - 31 January 2010

4 EPIPHANY —31 January 2010
St. Paul’s, Durant — 9:00

Jer 1:1-4 Ps 71:1-6 1Cor 13:1-13 Luke 4:21-30

“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.”

Have you ever been asked to do something, and your immediate response was, “Oh, I can’t do that! I don’t know how! I don’t have any training! I’m not good at that! It’s too much for me! Find somebody else!” Most of you have probably been there at one time or another. I certainly have.

And sometimes the word came, “Well, try it anyway!” And, by golly, you tried it and you found that you could do it after all! You never know what you can do until you try! Remember the Little Engine that Could? “I think I can, I think I can . . .” And sure enough, he could, and he did!

Or maybe when the word came, “Well, try it anyway!” by golly, you tried it, and sure enough, you couldn’t do it, you didn’t know how, you weren’t good at it, it was too much for you, and the whole thing was an utter disaster! I’ve been there, too!

Though I can’t help but observe that, no matter how disastrous the thing may have been, the world is still here, you and I are still here, and so perhaps failure is not always quite the catastrophe that we sometimes make it out to be!

I’m not peddling the power of positive thinking. Life isn’t quite that simple. If we are properly humble (I don’t mean false modesty, but if our knowledge of ourselves is realistic), then we will recognize that there are some things we are not good at and cannot do well. God knows there are plenty of things I don’t do well. But it still remains true that we can do more than we usually think we can; there are things we will find we can do if we just try; we do have abilities we don’t always give ourselves credit for. And—what we so easily overlook, and this is the key to the whole thing—we are not completely dependent upon our own resources. We are not alone.

And so my text for this morning, from the book of the prophet Jeremiah:

The word of the Lord came to me saying, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.”

And Jeremiah said, “Oh, God. Oh, — God! Oh, Lord God! Not me! Don’t look at me! I don’t know how to be a prophet! I’ve never been a prophet before! I don’t want to be a prophet! I can’t be a prophet! (To the nations??!!) Oh, no! Look, I didn’t take prophecy in school! I don’t know how to speak—I wouldn’t know what to say! I’m only a boy!”

And the Lord said, “Oh, Jeremiah, for my sake! Shut up for a minute and listen to me! Just do what I tell you—and don’t be afraid, for I am with you!”

The Epistle today will no doubt sound a little familiar to you! It’s the beloved 13th chapter of Paul’s first letter to the church at Corinth. A favorite chapter for many; in some danger of becoming a cliché, I suppose; but a central Scripture to the Christian Gospel: Paul’s great treatise on love.

You’ll remember from the Epistle readings the last two Sundays that Paul has been discussing the variety of spiritual gifts in the Church in chapter 12 of First Corinthians. Paul has been pointing out that everyone has a gift; different people have different gifts; they are all important; the Body needs all its various members. But you recall, last Sunday’s reading from Paul ended up: “Strive for the greater gifts.” And now we turn the page to Chapter 13, and here’s the most important gift of them all, and that’s the gift of love, the love that comes from God and fills us and enables us to love each other.

And love is the greatest gift, because love is the ultimate gift. Love is the gift that finally endures when everything else has served its purpose and has passed away. Including all the other things that we were good at, or not good at. All our great successes, and all our utter failures. But it is faith, hope, and love that endure, these three; and the greatest of these is love.

Today’s Gospel—continuing from last Sunday’s—is worth meditating on at such times. Jesus has come back to his home town of Nazareth, and is asked to preach at the Sabbath service in the synagogue. He reads from Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me [in Hebrew, those are the same words that we could translate, “made me Messiah,” the anointed one] -- he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor,” etc. Then Jesus proclaims this as his own ministry: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” And the congregation thinks that’s all very nice, until they realize what Jesus is really saying. And then they go wild with rage and try to kill him for blasphemy. Jesus, too, had more than his share of failure. It must often have seemed to Jesus that he wasn’t getting anywhere at all. Remember, Jesus didn’t end up getting a Presidential citation in the Rose Garden. He ended up getting nailed to a cross.

Well, not exactly “ended up”! And that’s part of the point, too.

So when we respond to God’s call to be Christ’s Body, in ministry to the world, by saying, “Oh, no! Not me! I can’t! We can’t! We don’t know how! Our church is too small! We’ll fail!” God says to us, “Oh, hush! You sound just like Jeremiah! He failed a lot, too. So what? I failed a lot myself, and I still fail a lot! (You think my will is being done on earth as it is in heaven very much?) Remember, I didn’t say you had to do all this all by yourself! Be not afraid—for I am with you,” says the Lord.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Sermon - 10 January 2010

1st AFTER EPIPHANY — 10 January 2010
St. Mark’s, Maquoketa — 10:00 a.m.

Isaiah 43:1-7 Psalm 29 Acts 8:14-17 Luke 3:15-17,21-22

“I baptize you with water, but . . . he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”

Well, we’re coming off Christmas, and I guess we’re mostly done with it. How many of you have taken down your decorations at home? No, we haven’t either. We normally leave everything up through the full twelve days of Christmas, that is, through the Epiphany, and we were going to take the decorations down yesterday, but we decided to go see Rosenkavalier in HD instead, which was a much better decision. I’m always a little sad at heart when, as I did this year when I went down to the post office the day after Christmas, and there on the curb were a couple of Christmas trees to be hauled away. On the other hand, we noticed last night that there were still a lot of trees still up in people’s living rooms, and most of the outdoor lighting displays were still up. But then, who wants to go take down outdoor Christmas lights in weather like what we’ve been having for the past three weeks? So we’re okay with the fact that our Christmas tree is still up. We can still use a little quiet time with the lights like little stars in the evening.

Christmas is kind of an inward-looking celebration. (That’s not a criticism!) Christmas is a time of peace and goodwill, a time for caring about others, a time of generosity. But at its heart, as we mostly experience it, Christmas is a “homey” festival, a domestic celebration. Our own homes and families are important, even central, aspects of it. After all the hustle and bustle and busyness of the preparations, all the shopping, the parties, the celebrations (not really what Advent is meant to be like!), but then Christmas itself is kind of quiet. The central story of Christmas has about it the hush of the nursery. For many people, the favorite Christmas carol is still “Silent Night” by candlelight.

The Church in her wisdom lets us enjoy that for a while, but not too long; Christmas is followed by the Epiphany. And the Epiphany represents the world breaking in upon the quiet romance of the manger. In the Gospel appointed for the Day of the Epiphany itself, which was Wednesday, the Wise Men come from a far-off land to see the Christ-Child, bringing rich, and mysterious, and foreboding gifts. In their wake, and at their unwitting guidance, a paranoid tyrant comes a-murdering, and the Holy Family must take the Child and flee the rustic quiet of the Judean hills and lose themselves as refugees in the turmoil of the second city of the Empire, Alexandria in Egypt.

But the visit of the Wise Men is but the beginning of the Epiphany, of the Appearance of Christ to the world. Today we celebrate the next moment in the Epiphany, perhaps a more central moment (and indeed so in the observances of the early Church): The Baptism of Jesus, the visible attestation of his anointing by God as Messiah, and the beginning of his public ministry.
“I baptize you with water,” says John Baptist the forerunner; “but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”

And here, maybe still in the warmth of the quiet joy of Christmas, we are brought to a turn, a turn back to the world. For the Epiphany is not a cozy domestic celebration. The Epiphany is about the mission of Christ in the world. If Christmas is something of a Sabbath and a Lord’s Day, Epiphany is a Monday morning: it’s time to go back to work.

But we go back, not as we so often come to a Monday morning, our tails still dragging! Or at least we need not and ought not! We go back renewed. We go back empowered. We go back glowing, burning, with the good news of God and of God’s gracious Reign.

For all that we enjoy the Christmas season and its family celebrations and its quiet relaxations—and it is right and needful that we should do so—we also now shift our gears and get going again, and it is right and needful that we do this too. The Epiphany, the Appearance of Christ to the world—not just the Wise Men, but the Baptism, the Power and Love of the Cana Wedding, the Proclaiming of God’s Reign Now at the Nazareth Synagogue, the Calling of the Disciples, culminating in the Transfiguration on the Holy Mountain — all the ways the Messiah shows himself to God’s broken world that we will hear in the Gospel in the coming weeks — the Epiphany of Christ calls us to our mission as Christians. As Jesus began his public mission at his baptism, sealed in power by the Holy Spirit, so we take our commission (our com-mission, our mission together with him) from our baptism into Christ, likewise sealed in power by the Holy Spirit, kindled aflame by God’s love for us and for God’s world.

And in acceptance of our commission, and I hope with your forgiveness for breaking with the line printed in the bulletin, for
this Sunday in place of the Nicene Creed, I ask you please to rise now and turn in your Prayer Books to page 292:
As our Lord Jesus Christ at his baptism was shown to be filled with the Holy Spirit, so we too, in him, are baptized with the Holy Spirit and with fire. I call upon you, therefore, now as we enter upon this Epiphany season, to renew the solemn promises and vows of Holy Baptism, by which we once renounced Satan and all his works, promised to serve God faithfully, and committed ourselves to the mission of his Holy Catholic Church.
The Renewal of Baptismal Vows, BCP 292

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Sermon -- 3 January 2010

2nd SUNDAY AFTER CHRISTMAS — 3 January 2010
St. Michael’s, Mount Pleasant — 10:00

Jer 31:7-14 Ps 84 Eph 1:3-6,15-19a Matt 2:1-12

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.”

This story is a very familiar one. It’s not clear to what extent this is actual history, and to what extent it is theological legend; but that’s another issue for another time. (I keep meaning to write a paper about it, and I keep not doing it. Oh well.) Perhaps this story is a little too familiar to us: we know this story better than the Bible itself does! Tradition has filled in a lot of details that just aren’t there in the text. In the first place, the visitors weren’t kings. (We knew that.) That’s a bit of lore that first shows up in the second century, undoubtedly reflecting the fact that this story reminded the early Christians of Isaiah 60 and Psalm 72, which talk about foreign kings coming to Jerusalem to worship God. (That’s where the camels come in, too — not in Matthew, who doesn’t mention camels.) Nor does the Gospel text say that there were three of these sage visitors; that’s an inference from the three sorts of gifts that are mentioned, and it first shows up explicitly in the tradition only in the fifth century. Nor are the names Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar, traditionally given to the wise men, apparently any earlier than the eighth century. And the depiction of Caspar as a Moor is only 14th century — practically yesterday!

Well, then, who were these wise men? The Gospel calls them Magi from the East. The “Magi” were apparently originally a tribe of the Medes, who lived in what is now northern Iran, north of the Persians. These Magi were famous for their knowledge of the occult and astrology, and it is from them that the word “magic” comes, via Greek and Latin. Later on in Persia and Babylonia, magicians and astrologers were known generically as “Magi” whether they were actually ethnic Medes or not; and such seem to have been the Magi of the Gospel story. We refer to them as “astrologers,” but that’s not the same thing as the fortune-telling baloney of which the supermarket tabloids are so fond. We no longer buy the basic premise that earthly affairs are influenced by the positions of the stars and planets — as one of the first of “modern” men, William Shakespeare, put into the mouth of Cassius: “Men at some time are masters of their fates: The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.” Nevertheless, despite their premises, the astrologers of ancient Persia did approach their study of the stars with a fair amount of scholarly rigor. Given the relative primitiveness of their instruments, they described and were able to predict astronomical phenomena with remarkable accuracy. But they were not interested only in the scientific phenomena as such, but in the supposed meaning of these phenomena for human affairs. They were both scientists and seers. By religion they were probably Zoroastrians, but they would have been familiar with the Hebrew scriptures — there were many large Jewish communities in Babylonia and Persia, dating from the exile centuries earlier — and one of the prophecies they may well have known is this verse from the Book of Numbers (24:17): “A star shall come out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel.” A somewhat obscure verse, perhaps, but we know that in the years just before the Christian era it was regarded as a prophecy of the vindication of Israel by the Jewish sect (Essenes or something like) that wrote the War Scroll, one of the documents found fifty years ago in a cave at Qumran by the Dead Sea.

And so when our Magi saw the star, it was not just a matter of scientific interest but of deeper import for world history. What was it they saw? We don’t know. One speculation has been that they saw a supernova — an exploding star suddenly dominating the night sky for some weeks — although there is no certain corroborating evidence of such a phenomenon at that time. More likely is a conjunction of planets, and apparently there was indeed a conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn in the constellation Pisces a few years before the death of Herod, right before the turn of the era. Conjunctions of planets were the kind of thing which were of immense interest to astrologers but not particularly obvious to anyone else.

The Magi were not just educated men, learned men by the standards of their time, they were wise men. Their life work was seeing the significance of phenomena — the meaning of things. They not only charted and computed the movements of the heavens, or what they interpreted as the movements of the heavens. (As Galileo would insist sixteen hundred years later, it is not the heavens, but the earth that moves. But I digress.) The Magi attempted to perceive what this all meant for human beings; and if we today would want to say that astrology was the wrong tree to be barking up (swat that metaphor!), we would still want to affirm and admire their fundamental quest for meaning. Ultimately, to be in quest of meaning is to be attentive to God. In fact, we might define being wise as “having a taste for God,” a sensitivity to God’s action in the world. As the Scriptures often remind us, “The beginning of wisdom is the fear of the Lord.”

And the Magi were wise men. They perceived that God was up to something, and that God wanted their witness. So they packed up and went on pilgrimage to find the newborn king of Israel. And they found him. But not where they first looked — not in the royal palace in Jerusalem. They found him in a humble rural village. That in itself is a mark of their wisdom, of their taste for God, of their sensitivity to how God does things in the world: they recognized Jesus when they found him, no matter how unlikely the circumstances may have appeared.

Remember the bumper sticker that said, “Wise men still seek him”? So they do. And from the wise men we learn something of what true wisdom is. Not only to see what’s going on in the world, but to see what it means, to see God’s hand at work in the world about us, to see what it requires from us in response. True wisdom is to have in the midst of this world a taste for God.