Behind the Veil, Last Sunday after Epiphany (B) – February 11, 2018

Epiphany Sermon Episcopal

[RCL] 2 Kings 2:1-12; Psalm 50:1-6; 2 Corinthians 4:3-6; Mark 9:2-9

Come, Holy Spirit, let us go up to the mountain. Open our ears to hear God’s voice in the clouds. Open our eyes to see God’s glory shine through the veil. Open our hearts to trust that God is always with us on the journey, so that when we come down from the mountain, we will not be afraid. In Christ’s name, we pray. Amen.

Today is the last Sunday of Epiphany, Transfiguration Sunday. The readings from Second Kings and the Gospel of Mark are just dazzling, two of the most beautiful stories in scripture: Elijah’s ascent to heaven and Jesus’ transfiguration. These are mystical, magical stories where heaven and earth meet in an extraordinary human being. These are stories of miracles and the eternal; at the same time, these stories are profoundly human, speaking of love, loss, grief, and transformation.

The Transfiguration describes a theophany, an experience of God’s ever-near eternal presence. Mark tells the story with a clear simplicity. Jesus goes to a mountain to pray, accompanied by his dear friends, the disciples Peter, James, and John. And there they see him transfigured, dazzling white, shining with the glory of God, and talking with the great prophets Moses and Elijah. The scene is reminiscent of Moses’ transfiguration in Exodus 34, when he came down from Mt. Sinai with the tablets of the covenant, his face shining so brightly from his encounter with God that his people were afraid and he had to cover it with a veil. In each story, the mountain is a thin place, a bridge between heaven and earth.

The Transfiguration describes a mystical moment on the mountain, a visible manifestation of the union of human and divine in Jesus. Like Moses’ people, Jesus’ friends are terrified by what they have seen. Terrified—and in awe of that glimpse of God’s eternal glory, and Jesus’ unity with that Glory, and indeed the unity of all humankind forever and ever, world without end, in God and Jesus.

In the climax of the scene, Jesus is called by God, who confirms his identity as the Son of God. “This is my Son the Beloved; listen to him!” This experience is a turning point for Jesus as well as his disciples. Jesus, reminded of his unity with God, turns toward the inevitable end of his human story. The Transfiguration is a bridge between Jesus’ public ministry as a traveling teacher and healer in Galilee, and the road to his passion, death, and resurrection in Jerusalem. Transfiguration Sunday is a bridge from Epiphany, when we celebrate the miracles and works of Jesus’ life, to Lent, when we focus on Jesus’ journey to the cross.

The Transfiguration is a miracle, a revelation of Christ’s glory, a glimpse behind the veil between heaven and earth, a hint of the end-time. Miracles need to be experienced. Perhaps this is a clue to Jesus’ instruction to his friends to tell no one what they had seen. Miracles, like an experience of God, cannot be adequately described or explained.

The story of Elijah’s ascent to heaven is another such meeting of heaven and earth, an experience of God that is dazzling and miraculous. We know from the opening line of the passage that God is about to take Elijah up to heaven in a whirlwind. Elijah knows where he is going; the company of prophets know where he is going; his student and protégé Elisha knows where he is going. In an echo of Jesus’ instruction to tell no one, Elisha insists: keep silent. He knows, but he is not ready. It is touching and profoundly human that Elisha will not leave his master. He stays with him as long as he can, accompanying him on the journey to eternal union with God. Elisha tries to hold on to all that his friend is to him: human mentor, divinely-inspired prophet and healer, holy man who is intimately connected with God. “Please let me inherit a double share of your spirit,” he begs in his distress.

Embedded within these stories of transfiguration—these revelations of God’s glory—are stories of human grief. Elisha accompanies his beloved mentor as far as he can, until he can no longer see him, then tears his clothes in lamentation. Peter, James, and John too are reluctant to let go of the marvelous, concrete, human manifestation of God’s eternal light. They suggest that they might make dwellings for the prophets, keep them here with them. They do not want their beloved to leave them behind.

Today we’ve heard two stories of thresholds, moments of crossing over, journeying toward the threshold of life and death, the temporal and eternal, with a loved teacher. How like a scene from hospice care! Family and friends are gathered to hold vigil at the threshold of life and death, to accompany their loved one as far along the journey as they can. There may be a glimpse of the shining light toward which the traveler has already turned his or her face. “Please stay, I’ll build you a house,” you might plead. Or, simply, since you must go, “Please let me inherit a double share of your spirit.”

Both stories are encounters with the divine, encounters at the threshold. They are reminders that God walks with us on our journey to unity with the infinite, mystical, unknowable, and untellable. In the intimacy and heightened intensity of a bedside death vigil, as at the transfiguration or the ascent to heaven, may we be open to the moments when we can catch a glimpse, a fleeting experience, of God’s eternal glory. Feeling God’s presence in the transfigured faces at a hospice bedside, or as sunlight pours through the stained glass of a chapel window, transfiguring the face of Christ, the miracle and blessing of grief is the spiritual deepening that can result. May we live in hope and die in the certainty of unity with God and all the saints. In the stories of Jesus’ transfiguration and Elijah’s ascent to heaven, the dead are not lost nor the living left behind. Grief and suffering are transformed by the mystical knowledge that we shall be together in God’s love again, as we always have been and always shall be.

The closing words are from the collect of the day. Let us pray: O God, grant that we, beholding by faith the light of Christ’s countenance, may be strengthened to bear our cross, and be changed into his likeness from glory to glory. Through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Susan Butterworth, M.A., M.Div, is a writer, teacher, singer, and lay minister. She leads Song & Stillness: Taizé @ MIT, a weekly ecumenical service of contemplative Taizé prayer at the interfaith chapel at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She sings with Threshold Singers, a group that sings at hospice bedside. She teaches writing and literature to college undergraduates, and writes essays and literary reference articles.

Download the sermon for the Last Sunday after Epiphany (B).

Touch, Epiphany 5 (B) – February 4, 2018

Epiphany Episcopal Sermon

[RCL] Isaiah 40:21-31; Psalm 147:1-12, 21c; 1 Corinthians 9:16-23; Mark 1:29-39

In the 1st Century world of Jesus, sick people only had a few options. The first thing they could do was try a folk remedy. These varied from sensible potions and poultices to downright dangerous “fixes.” Many folk remedies are still practiced today in the industrialized world and most are completely ineffective, especially with serious diseases and injuries.

The second thing a sick person could do was to pay for a physician to see them. This was costly and was not much more effective than the folk remedies. Most Greek physicians in the 1st century followed the teachings of Hippocrates, who is best known for his famous oath. Hippocrates codified the principles of Humorism, a belief that human health is defined as the perfect balance of four fluids, or humors. It was holistic, in that it saw the need for balance between the mental and physical, but the interventions by physicians often involved bleeding and draining of fluids, which would regularly result in a worsening condition. Treatment was expensive, and therefore only accessible to the privileged.

Another option for sick people in Jesus’ world was one or many religious healing practices. Every ancient religion had extensive teachings on healing, and most of it cost money. With these limited and ineffective options, sickness in the ancient world changed a person’s identity.

Sick people would stand out in a village. They were often visibly scarred or marked. Lepers were required to announce their coming by shouting or ringing bells. Most sick people became beggars, or wholly dependent on their family members for food and shelter. Being labeled a sick person led to very low status in society.

The identity of a sick person in Jesus’ day also carried with it the stigma of God’s judgment. In this society, most illnesses were linked to some sin or indiscretion, rather than a scientific cause. In Jesus’ ministry, he confronted some of these beliefs, showing how widespread they were.

The sick person in our Gospel reading is Simon Peter’s mother-in-law. She has a fever and is so weak that she cannot get out of her sickbed. Her condition is of concern to the disciples, and so Jesus is ushered in to see her. Perhaps a fever would not warrant such concern in our day, but it certainly did in Jesus’ day.

Jesus touches her hand with his hand. There is that touch that we see in Jesus’ ministry over and over again. She rises up at once and the fever leaves her. It is not a very dramatic scene; there isn’t any music or fanfare. There aren’t any spells or incantations. There is only a hand touching another hand. There is only Jesus reaching out to this sick woman.

And then we are told that she starts to serve them. She now has the strength to offer the customary hospitality to her guests. Her identity is no longer a bedridden, fevered person, but a gracious host to a visiting teacher and his disciples.

And then the zombies attack. Well, not real zombies, but a horde of sick, demonized, and injured people swarm Jesus, begging for healing. What we saw happen to Simon’s mother-in-law, we see happen to a multitude in the village.

Jesus reached out his hand to a sick woman. Now he reaches out his hand to the multitude just as he reaches out his hand to us. Jesus is here to heal you. Jesus is here to restore you to the community you lost. Jesus is here to restore you to a place of service to your community, so you can find dignity and purpose again. This is what Jesus does: he brings people back to wholeness and health. Jesus can bring you back to wholeness and health.

But all this healing takes a toll on Jesus; he disappears in the dark of night to pray. On these occasions of nighttime prayer, we are seldom told the content of Jesus’ prayers. They seem to be a conversation between the beloved son and his father, an intimate dialogue that may seem incomprehensible to the disciples or us.

The only time we know the content of Jesus’ private, nighttime prayer is in the Garden of Gethsemane on the night he was betrayed. On that night, he strained and writhed under the weight of what he was called to do as the Son of God. He pleaded for the cup to pass from him, even as he accepts God’s will for his life. This glimpse of Jesus’ prayer life may not be identical to all those other nights he prayed for hours in the dark, but we can be sure it was intense. Jesus’ sense of mission empowered him to do the work God had called him to do. When he is exhausted, he goes off and prays in the night, and he comes back renewed.

Perhaps we do not so much need rest as a renewed sense of our mission and calling by God. Perhaps more people would experience wholeness and healing if we spent more time in the dark with God. It was how Jesus found strength, and many Christian saints through the ages found time alone with God to be renewing and refreshing.

Jesus is reaching out his hand to us today, calling us to a life filled with service and community. Jesus is praying for us so we might have the strength to go into the dark with God and wrestle with our calling and mission. Jesus is with us, going before us, into the world God loves so much.

David W. Peters is the author of two books, Death Letter (Tactical 16 Press) and Post-Traumatic God (Morehouse, 2016). He is the founder of the Episcopal Veterans Fellowship and serves as the Associate Rector at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Austin, Tex.

Download the sermon for Epiphany 5(B).

What’s the Question?, Epiphany 4 (B) – January 28, 2018

Epiphany Sermon Episcopal

[RCL] Deuteronomy 18:15-20; Psalm 111; 1 Corinthians 8:1-13; Mark 1:21-28

“If this is the answer, then what is the question?” Have you ever wondered that about something?

Jesus often asks questions without providing answers: “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” “Who do you say I am?” “Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life?”

Anytime we read Paul’s letters, though, it’s the reverse. We have answers, but not questions. We need to ask, “If this is the answer, then what is the question?” for we only have Paul’s response to a letter or a circumstance. We do not have any of the original context which prompts his response.

It’s sort of like playing the TV game Jeopardy. The answer is given; what is the question? And this is the pattern we encounter this morning in our reading from 1 Corinthians.

The question this morning seems to be whether one may eat meat sacrificed to idols. And Paul responds. Paul also addresses this topic in his Letter to the Romans, so we know that the eating of meat sacrificed to idols was a wide-ranging concern within the early Christian community.

This is a question about food, particularly meat. In a variety of ways, food was associated with pagan ritual, either in the course of a social or public event in the temple or the home, or later, for sale in the market. Apparently, there was some concern within the Christian community about eating what had been sacrificed to pagan gods. Some, either secure in their faith or “puffed up” with knowledge, as Paul puts it, readily ate the meat available, whatever its pedigree. Still others had difficulty separating their faith in Christ Jesus from the pagan sacrifices of their culture, and were confused in their understanding.

Paul tells the Christians in Corinth to sit up! Pay attention! Take a closer look! Paul tells those Christians that they’re focused on the wrong thing. To eat – or not to eat – that is not the question!

So we’re back to questions and answers again.

We have an answer in Paul’s writing. What is the question?

The truth is, there is no single question formulated in a neat and tidy package, but whatever the Corinthians were troubled about, eating meat was just the presenting issue. The real concern had more to do with freedom, and responsibility, and rights. The real question wasn’t so much about eating meat, as about principles and people. At its heart, it was a question about love.

There is a difference between doing what we imagine is good and right and doing what we imagine we have a right to do.

Do you remember Jonah of big whale fame? Just like in the story of Jonah, Paul is talking to the Christians at Corinth of the conflict between principles and people.

“I can eat meat sacrificed to idols because I know that the idols aren’t real.” “I have a right to eat the meat if I want to and it doesn’t do any harm.”

Have you heard this kind of language about rights and wiggle room? Some of those in Corinth took these positions, and certainly from a legal standpoint—even a standpoint of religious right and wrong—they were correct in their thinking.

Paul agrees: “We know that ‘all of us possess knowledge’ that ‘no idol in the world really exists’ and …we are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do…” Paul argues against any kind of legalism that puts the rule first—for the sake of the rule itself—and people and consequences second.

But there is more than one way of forgetting God in one’s religious zeal. The Corinthians were a headstrong lot in a very diverse community and they were apparently quite determined to hold to their rights as Christians and as free citizens. Trouble is, in doing so, they put principles before people, substituting rules for responsibility.

Rules can be important in establishing a community’s identity. One example of how biblical rules get lived out is in the dress codes of Orthodox Jews. Have you ever observed Orthodox Jews in an airport? The men are quite noticeable with their giant black hats and long black coats. Orthodox Jews are faithful in living out the rules of their religious beliefs, and this includes the way they dress.

We tend to take a more flexible, relaxed approach to some biblical rules. As Episcopalians, we’ve thrown out some rules, or been selective in choosing ones to support our positions. Few among us practice Levirate marriage, for example, where a woman, upon her husband’s death, marries his brother. We don’t go break a neighbor’s window if ours is accidentally broken. And we don’t pluck out our eye when we see something offensive.

Since we are sometimes not very good with rules, we’re also often confused about responsibility. Maybe we’ve thrown out the baby with the bathwater!

One of the earliest lessons of the Old Testament, what God has been trying to get across to generations of willful people and what the “show and tell” of God in Christ came finally to demonstrate is found in the story of Cain and Abel. Remember that in the 4th chapter of Genesis, Cain kills Abel. God knows this and asks Cain: “Where is your brother?” Cain replies, “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?”

The point is made quite clearly that we are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers. We share responsibility for each other in Christ Jesus and in Christian community. Paul and his opponents in Corinth differ not simply about meat and who should eat what under which circumstances. Paul, in writing to the Christian community in Corinth, addresses the issue of meat, yes. But more deeply, and more to the point, he talks about the meaning of freedom. Of Christian freedom. And Paul frames this in the context of Christian community.

Christian freedom isn’t so much of rights as responsibilities.

Christian freedom isn’t so much of principles as people.

Paul says food will not commend us to God. Knowledge puffs us up. It is love that builds us up, and in love, Paul counsels the Corinthians to take care lest their understanding of liberty become a stumbling block to the weak.

The God who is our source and goal, and Jesus Christ who lived among us and prepares a place for us, are more interested in our sisters and our brothers than in legalistic principles. The message of Paul underscores Jesus’ message of love: our relationships are more important than our rules. Freedom is not a matter of our rights, but of our neighbor’s needs.

When Jesus casts out an unclean spirit in today’s gospel lesson, he casts out that which separates a person from God, that which emphasizes knowledge and principle. Be sure to notice how painful it is when the unclean spirit comes out of him!

Rules are easy. We know what they are and can dress accordingly, act accordingly, eat accordingly. Freedom, the freedom that Christ brings, the liberty born of God’s love for us, is a harder thing to live.

So, back to the beginning. Without knowing the question, we can read Paul’s answer to the Corinthian community. People matter. Responsibilities bind us.

Still, there are some critical questions that come out of this, questions for each of us to ask ourselves and to hold in mind:

Am I not an apostle?

Have I not seen Jesus our Lord?

Am I not free?

The Rev. Machrina Blasdell teaches religious studies courses online for Park University, with her greatest interest following the development and idiosyncrasies of religion in today’s world. She enjoys time with her family, a number of cats and many roses, and delights in working with dark chocolate.

Download the sermon for Epiphany 4(B).

Arrested, Epiphany 3 (B) – January 21, 2018

Epiphany Sermon3

[RCL] Jonah 3:1-5, 10; Psalm 62:6-14; 1 Corinthians 7:29-31; Mark 1:14-20

“After John was arrested.”

This line should arrest us where we stand. John’s arrest happens just moments after John the Baptizer baptizes Jesus in the Jordan River and Jesus is driven into the wilderness to be tested by the Devil.

And then John is arrested. Arrested. He’s stopped in his tracks. That’s what the word “arrest” means—to be stopped.

An arrest on the side of the highway gets our attention. Cars slow down and sometimes stop to see who it is being arrested. An arrest makes the news if it’s a high-profile person. Everyone stops to see who’s been nabbed. An arrest not only stops the person arrested, it stops everyone.

After John was arrested.

We were arrested.

We were stopped, arrested by this news. An order was issued from Herod to his soldiers to go arrest John the Baptist. The movement John started in the desert—a movement of confession, repentance, and renewal by baptism came to a sudden stop.

After John was arrested, we were devastated.

John had been preaching repentance for all, from the least to the greatest. Messages of repentance in our day are often a call to join a new church or religion, but John was not calling them to join a new church or religion. He was calling his people to return to the covenant of Justice and Mercy. He was inviting them to come home.

And we heard this message in Advent, too—this invitation to come home to God. Did we? Did we respond? Did we renew our trust in God’s faithfulness? Did we start that journey toward home?

And now, after John was arrested, we don’t know where home is.

But then we remembered John’s message. We remembered how he told us the Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth was coming—is coming.

And Jesus is here.

After John was arrested, “Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God.”

John’s arrest was a huge blow to his followers and disciples. They lost so much when John was arrested by an insecure and vindictive tyrant, Herod. But there, in this gaping hole, steps Jesus, proclaiming the good news of God.

And this is the good news for us today. The good news is found in the gaping holes of life, in the disappointments, in the blows and losses, in the sadness and grief. The good news is always found in these moments, at the eleventh hour, when all hope is lost. This is when we are ready to receive good news.

This is when Jesus comes to us, proclaiming the good news of God.

Jesus’ life, as recorded in the Gospel of Mark, follows this pattern of life, death, and resurrection. After John was arrested, we died a little, and then Jesus came with good news. This pattern will play out when Jesus goes to the cross at the end of Mark’s Gospel, too.

And this pattern will play out in your life, and our life together.

After John was arrested, we heard the good news. After our dreams had died, we heard about new life, new dreams.

Jesus is very clear in his message, that we are to repent and believe. We are to come home to the God who loves us and announces a kingdom of love and peace. But this kingdom only comes after John is arrested, after our dreams die.

And Jesus, who comes to us after John is arrested, comes to us in our fishing boats.

Jesus walks along the Sea of Galilee and sees Simon and Andrew, James and John fishing, so he calls them to follow him.

And they do follow him.

In this account, it never says why these disciples leave their fishing boats and their fishing nets and follow Jesus. Why would these young men leave their family businesses and follow this wandering rabbi, who is just getting started himself?

Mark doesn’t tell us. He leaves that as a mystery.

After John was arrested, we followed Jesus.

The juxtaposition in the text of John’s arrest and these disciples following Jesus is not a mere coincidence. It is the very heart of the good news—the gospel Jesus is preaching. It is in the midst of loss and heartache that we find hope and purpose in Jesus.

And maybe we aren’t quite sure why we are here today, to gather as followers of Jesus; we are not always sure of our motives for doing anything. But like those disciples in their fishing boats, something about Jesus’ call to us made sense—it resonated with us. Like many formative events in life, it’s a bit of a mystery. We don’t fully know how or why a relationship started. All we know is that it did indeed start, that it continues, and that it gives us hope for the future.

So, come and follow Jesus. Come and fish for people with the good news.

 

David W. Peters is the author of two books, Death Letter (Tactical 16 Press) and Post-Traumatic God (Morehouse, 2016). He is the founder of the Episcopal Veterans Fellowship and serves as the Associate Rector at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Austin, Tex.

Download the sermon for Epiphany 3 (B).

Draw Me a Sheep, Epiphany 2 (B) – January 14, 2018

[RCL] 1 Samuel 3:1-10(11-20); Psalm 139:1-5, 12-17; 1 Corinthians 6:12-20; John 1:43-51

In Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s classic work The Little Prince, the narrator is a pilot who crash lands his plane in the middle of the Sahara Desert. Miles from civilization, the pilot assumes he will only last as long as his water supply, but one morning he is awakened by a funny little voice that says, “Draw me a sheep.” When he turns and sees an extraordinary little prince, he stares at him in disbelief. The pilot asks the boy where he came from, but the prince just says, “Please…draw me a sheep.”

The pilot complies, or at least he tries to, but the first sheep he draws looks “too sickly.” The prince asks for another. The second sheep has horns, so the prince specifies that he wants a sheep, not a ram. The pilot draws a third sheep, but that one looks too old. Finally, perhaps in some frustration, the pilot draws a box with three holes in the side and says, “The sheep you want is inside.”

To his surprise, the prince says, “That’s just the kind I wanted!” And this first, whimsical encounter with the little prince is one of many in a journey that takes the pilot—and the reader—from contentment in the familiar to joy in an adventure.

Many of the disciples have notable and even whimsical first encounters with Jesus, but none more than Nathanael. Nathanael is minding his own business when Philip runs up screaming that he has found the one whom Moses and the prophets wrote about, “And he’s from Nazareth of all places!”

“Nazareth?” Nathanael says, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”

Philip simply invites him, “Come and see for yourself!”

So, Nathanael follows, and before he can shake hands with this stranger from the backwaters of first-century Palestine, Jesus raises his arms and exclaims, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!”

While some people are masters of flattery, Jesus offers no shallow compliments here—he sees Nathanael and Nathanael knows it. “How do you know me?” Nathanael asks.

Jesus responds, “I saw you under the fig tree even before Philip told you about me.”

To our surprise, Nathanael proclaims, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!”

In one moment, Nathanael moves from his narrow ideas and contentment in the familiar to embracing the joy that is possible in an adventure following Jesus. But what is it about this whimsical encounter that makes Nathanael change his tune so dramatically?

There was a common metaphor used for the religious institution of Jesus’ time—that of the fig tree. Fig trees produce fruit right along with leaves, and in an occurrence found in Mark and Matthew, Jesus comes upon a fig tree chockablock full of leaves. He goes to pick some fruit and finds that there is none to be picked. Whatever pollination is necessary for fruit to be produced did not happen.

The same thing seemed to be true of the religious institution Jesus critiqued—all of the bells and whistles were there, but the fruits were not.

Jesus knew that Nathanael shared this perception of those religious institutions, and Jesus knew that Nathanael was familiar with the fig tree metaphor—one that was likely as common as referring to Washington, D.C. as “the swamp.” Nathanael knew that the fig tree he was “under” needed some pruning, and in few words, Jesus seemed to promise help with such an endeavor.

Nathanael is blown away, but the excitement does not stop. Jesus asks Nathanael, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these…you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”

What do you suppose that might look like? If you had to draw the scene of the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man, what might that look like? More than a fantastic image, Jesus’ image alludes to Jacob—who was called “Israel” after his wrestling match with God. Like the metaphor of the fig tree, Nathanael would have immediately understood the connection to Jacob, who is said to have dreamt of a ladder reaching to heaven with God at the top. On the ladder, there are angels ascending and descending between earth and heaven.

Knowing this story of Jacob, Nathanael would have understood Jesus to be saying that he would be the one to reestablish the joyful relationship between the people on earth and God in heaven. Jesus would not do away with anything but would fulfill everything. Jesus would make it so that no person or institution could ever get in the way of God doing what God is going to do to bring about total reconciliation throughout the world and all of the created universe.

The Church—the Body of Christ—is said to have been birthed at Pentecost. Some people claim that Easter is the birth of the Church, and many speak of Christmas as that beginning. We may also consider that the birth of the Church happens whenever someone accepts that curious invitation to “come and see” what God is up to in the world today.

As participants in a faith community, we too have opportunities to join God in what God is doing. Often those opportunities lead us down unfamiliar paths. Sometimes those opportunities require that we take a good, hard look at ourselves and correct our path. Sometimes we simply need to find our spirits nourished and our energies renewed. More often than not, we can find ourselves somewhere in a cycle that moves us from contentment in the familiar ways of our world into a whimsical curiosity, in an adventure that promises us joyful results.

Jesus invited Nathanael on a journey that would take him all around the region and eventually right up to Jerusalem to encounter the powers of the day. There was no hour-by-hour itinerary, but there was a promise of joy and hope in helping to usher in a world that could be—God’s kingdom come.

Jesus does not offer us as much information about what following him will look like. Not unlike Saint-Exupéry’s pilot depicting a sheep by drawing a box with holes in the side, Jesus promises us an adventure and a chance to imagine together what following Jesus might look like. We will define what turns our journeys take, but we can only do that once we accept that curious, whimsical invitation: the invitation to “come and see.”

The Rev’d Curtis Farr serves with the good people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Fairfield, Connecticut as their rector. In his spare time, he chases his dog Eleanor Roosevelt (Elly) around the house as she attempts to make off with one of his Batman comics.

Download the sermon for Epiphany 2 (B).

Christ’s Own for Ever, Epiphany 1 (B) – January 7, 2018

Epiphany 3 sermon

[RCL] Genesis 1:1-5; Psalm 29; Acts 19:1-7; Mark 1:4-11

Today, we commemorate the baptism of Jesus by his cousin John in the River Jordan. Now, John’s that guy we’ve been hearing a lot about lately (since the beginning of Advent), and after today, he will drop into the background.

You see, we no longer need that voice crying in the wilderness, “Prepare the way of the Lord.” For the Lord is here, born on earth to save us. And we no longer have any confusion about who is the Messiah, for the one more powerful than John has come.

Now that babe is born. Incarnate and among us.

John’s role as prophet, foretelling the great story of salvation as known in the person of Jesus Christ: well, that role is fulfilled with Jesus’ baptism today.

John is sometimes seen as the last of the old order: the last prophet in the line of Isaiah and Jeremiah, the last to baptize with water only and not also the Holy Spirit, and the last to demand repentance before the immanent coming of the kingdom of God.

For Jesus proclaims over and over again that the kingdom of God has drawn near us; it is here, and now. No longer coming, or far off, or even just the other side of a thin divide—but here, very near us.

Among the very first documented acts of his earthly ministry, the twelve-year-old Jesus picks up a scroll and reads from an earlier prophecy of Isaiah: that the spirit of the Lord has anointed him, and that he has been sent to announce good news to the poor—and that this prophecy has been fulfilled. “Today, in your very hearing this text has come true,” he says.

So, too, of this baptism of Jesus: it seems to have effected a radical transformation in him. Luke’s gospel tells us of his birth, and then nary a word until now—thirty years later. And from this moment—the moment of a simple ritual of living water—Jesus is changed. No longer just the carpenter’s son, no longer a refugee in Egypt, no longer just another human being to walk the face of the earth.

He moves on from here to teach in synagogues and have all people sing his praises. He will heal the sick, and make the dead live again. He will preach, and manifest miracles. He will astound people with his teaching, and confound us even today by submitting to a shameful death on a cross.

And he will appear again over forty days until he ascends into heaven, prophesying of his return in glory to judge the earth—a second coming we still anticipate, two millennia later.

One day people know him as that clever boy, Joseph’s son. And the next he’s revealed as the Christ, the Messiah, the chosen one—God’s son, the beloved, with whom God is well pleased.

In his baptism, Jesus seems to have become an entirely different person.

It’s as if the waters of his baptism have washed away what was hiding the true Jesus. The running water of a river has somehow changed him, made him manifest as who he truly is, and given him the power and inspiration to begin a mission and ministry that will forever change the world.

So, too, with our baptism:

  • Oh, none of us is the Christ, but each and every one of us is the beloved, with whom God is well pleased.
  • And each and every one of us was forever changed and transformed in our baptism.
  • And each and every one of us continues to be changed and transformed—in ways big and small—throughout our earthly ministry.

Now filled with the Holy Spirit, we—like Jesus—are commissioned and sent forth to proclaim the good news of God’s favor, to proclaim release for prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the broken victims go free, to proclaim that the time of God’s favor is here.

That’s our job: to live baptismally.

And, living baptismally: what is that all about?

  • It’s about knowing that we have been forever changed by the acknowledgment of God’s working in our life;
  • that our true and holy self has been revealed by the washing away of all stain of sin;
  • that we are grafted into the body of Christ’s Church;
  • that we have been given an inquiring and discerning heart, the courage to will and to persevere, a spirit to know and love God, and the gift of joy and wonder in all God’s works.

We are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ’s own for ever.

Baptism is an amazing gift. By the waters of baptism, we are lead from death to life, from the bondage of sin into everlasting life. In it, we are buried with Christ in his death. By it, we share in his resurrection. Through it, we are reborn by the Holy Spirit.[1]

And baptism is also an awesome responsibility. We are also no longer simply to live as ordinary people in the world:

  • We are to boldly confess Jesus as Lord and Savior;
  • to strive for justice and peace among all people;
  • and to seek and serve the Christ in everyone we meet.

Those of us who profess and call ourselves Christians are called to live a different kind of life, a life set apart from the world around us and yet somehow also very much in its midst.

A life of grateful thanksgiving in the face of victory—and defeat.

A life of difficult forgiveness—in the face of bitter betrayal.

A life of ongoing repentance—in the face of our chronic mistakes.

A life forever changed—and forever changing—proceeding from strength to strength, from goodness to perfection, from death to life.

This wet, earthly act, involving people in relation to one another, bodies acting and touching one another, hands, clothing, oil, and light: This emotion-filled rite we call “baptism” is the means by which we declare:

  • our separation from an old identity,
  • our transition from being no longer one of the old order to not yet being fully one of the new, and
  • our incorporation into the full life of the community we know and proclaim as Christ’s holy church.[2]

It is now for us—the baptized, those grafted into the life of Christ, those sealed and set apart—to share in an eternal priesthood, to rejoice at our adoption as children of God, and to give thanks for the ineffable mystery of our salvation.

Through baptism, we are forgiven, loved, and free to become more fully who God has created us to be: living members of Christ’s body, incarnate examples of divine love, manifestations of God’s glory here on earth.

By baptism, the prophecy of Isaiah is fulfilled—in Jesus, and in each one of us. God looks at us—the beloved, with whom God is well pleased—and says, “Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of God has risen upon you.” Amen.

[1] From the Thanksgiving over the Water in The Book of Common Prayer [1979].

[2] Daniel V. Stevick, Baptismal Moments; Baptismal Meanings (New York: Church Hymnal Corporation, 1987), 116.’ 

The Rev. Barrie Bates has served Anglican and Lutheran congregations in California, New York, and New Jersey over the past 20+ years. He holds a Ph.D. in liturgical studies, and memberships in the International Anglican Liturgical Consultation, the Sons of the American Revolution, and the Screen Actors’ Guild. Other than ordained ministry, his interests include opera, fine dining, and boating.

Download the sermon for Epiphany 1 (B).

God Is the Seeker, Feast of the Epiphany – January 6, 2018

[RCL] Isaiah 60:1-6; Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14; Ephesians 3:1-12; Matthew 2:1-12

We celebrate today the great “Aha” moment when the Magi who journeyed from the east discover at the end of their quest not a prince born in a palace, but the infant Jesus born in a cave that had been used as a stable. The Magi are astrologers, who watch the heavens for signs of momentous earthly events. These are not astronomers who study the stars and planets for scientific data alone, but astrologers, not unlike people who create horoscopes today. Astrology was a forbidden means of divination for the Jews.

What the Magi reveal is that there was an air of expectation so palpable that anyone with eyes could see something momentous was about to happen. Let’s step aside from the Bible for a moment and see what else was being written around the time of Jesus’ birth. In the year 37 BCE, the poet Virgil wrote his Fourth Eclogue, a beautifully written poem about the immanent expectation of a man sent down from heaven whose birth would inaugurate a new age. Two Roman historians, Tacitus and Suetonius, wrote of the expectation of a world leader to arise out of Judea [Tacitus Ann. 5.13 and Suetonius Bell. 3.399-408; 6:310-15].

It was also a common expectation of the day that a sign from the heavens would accompany such a momentous event. There were plenty of impressive portents from which to choose. Jesus was likely born in what we would now call 4 BCE. Seven years before Jesus’ birth, Halley’s Comet made its circuit through our skies. Three years before Jesus’ birth, Jupiter and Saturn were in alignment three times. The planet Jupiter signified a king while Saturn was routinely associated with the Jews. This would have fueled Herod’s insecurity and local political and religious speculation. Finally, a year before Jesus’ birth, Chinese astronomers recorded sighting a supernova, a bright light suddenly appearing in the night sky.

What all of this tells us is that, independent of the Bible, we can read of a relatively common expectation at the turn of the era that momentous change was coming. Furthermore, that change was expected to be noted with signs in the heavens.

The Judeo-Christian tradition has always taught that God can be known through creation. This revelation through the creation is no simplistic natural theology, but the knowledge we gain of God through the creation alone is incomplete and sometimes confusing in and of itself. We come to see that though one can reliably come to know of God through the creation, we do not come to know God in fullness through the creation alone.

In theological terms, what we are discussing is revelation. Unless God chose to reveal God’s own self to us, we would know nothing of God. But, because God decided to be made known, we can and do learn of God through the general revelation of creation and other forms of specific revelation. Just as you may discern something of the artist through her painting or his sculpture, one can learn of God through the creation. The theoretical physicist and Anglican priest John Polkinghorne put it this way in his book Science and Creation,

“We are so familiar with the fact that we can understand the world that most of the time we take it for granted. It is what makes science possible. Yet it could have been otherwise. The universe might have been a disorderly chaos rather than an orderly cosmos. Or it might have had rationality which was inaccessible to us.”

The universe was created with an order that humans can study and somewhat comprehend. We were created with the ability to understand and a common component of human self-understanding through the ages and around the world has been a belief in God. This belief in something greater than ourselves is such a universal human experience that many find that awareness of God alone to be proof of God’s existence. Yet, if we are honest with ourselves, we must admit that this universal human idea of God could be nothing more than a universal projection of our minds to fill a need in our lives. This is the Marxist worldview, that religion is the opium of the masses. We just delude ourselves into belief.

Yet, this idea of revelation comes circling back around to tap on our shoulders. We do not know of God simply because we want there to be a God. We know of God because God reveals God’s own self to us. In addition to the general revelation of God through creation, there is specific revelation. The general revelation of God through creation spoils any possible excuse we may have in saying that we never knew there is such a thing as God. Specific revelation is more direct.

Specific revelation includes dreams and visions God uses to get people’s attention. Dreams like the ones which told Joseph of Jesus’ birth. Dreams like the one which warned the Magi to return home without stopping to pay a courtesy call on Herod and the one that warned Joseph and Mary to flee to Egypt. Specific revelation also includes scripture. God’s revelation is available to us through the word of God. We get a fuller picture of God through scripture that complements rather than contradicts the image of God we attain through the creation.

An important form of specific revelation comes through our own lives. We know God best through the ways in which God acts in our lives and the other ways in which God has acted in human history. As God is revealed in the way God acts in history, the Christian concept of revelation reaches its fullest expression in the person of Jesus. We get our best and clearest image of who God is and how God acts through Jesus’ life and ministry, his death, and resurrection.

As the Apostle Paul wrote, “For it is God who said, ‘Let light shine out of the darkness,’ who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” Whether they understood it at the outset of their journey or not, the Magi traveled to see the light of the Glory of God revealed in the face of the infant Jesus.

The Magi were seekers and even though their methods were unbiblical and perhaps anti-biblical, God honored their quest. God called out to the Magi from the heavens or they would have never found Jesus. God, not the Magi, initiated the Magi’s quest. God guided them to their destination though the Magi never knew where exactly where their journey would take them. Yet, the Magi played their part as they did not simply stay home admiring the star in the sky. They hit the road, enduring all the troubles of travel including having to go against the local king, Herod, when they neared their destination. Yet all of their actions came second. God initiated the journey.

We may think that we are spiritual seekers, we are the ones on a quest for God’s presence. But that’s not the way scripture presents the story. Scripture tells us that God is the seeker. God is revealing God’s own self to you in the creation, in scripture, in your very life experience. We are asked only to open our eyes, to see, and then respond as the Magi did in coming to adore the one who made us and then entered human history to redeem us.

Open your eyes to how God is showing up in your life. God is seeking after you and me. Come let us adore him. Amen.

The Rev. Canon Frank Logue is Canon to the Ordinary of the Diocese of Georgia. He is also a member of the Executive Council of The Episcopal Church and serves on the Advisory Group on Church Planting. Frank blogs on mostly church development related topics at http://loosecanon.georgiaepiscopal.org.

Download the sermon for the Feast of the Epiphany.

Our global Family, Last Sunday After Epiphany (B) – 2015

February 15, 2015

2 Kings 2:1-12; Psalm 50:1-6; 2 Corinthians 4:3-6; Mark 9:2-9

Today, the Last Sunday After the Epiphany, the Episcopal Church celebrates World Mission Sunday. Today is a day when we are called to celebrate that we are a missionary church. Today is a day when where are all called, through our baptismal vows, to seek and serve Christ in all people and respect the dignity of every human being, to continue in the apostle teachings and to proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ.

Today is a day when we remember that through our baptism we are reborn into the family of Christ as children of God.

In our gospel reading today, we are reminded of the divinity of Christ as the Son of God, and therefore, we are reminded of our relationship with God, as children of God and brothers and sisters in Christ. One reason why World Mission Sunday is important is that we are reminded that as children of God, we are part of a global family and mutually responsible for one another.

In 1963, 16,000 Anglicans from around the world gathered together for an Anglican Congress to discuss issues of mutual ministry, and to live into the belief that the Anglican Communion is one family, mutual interdependent on one another.

This congress struggled with issues of interdependence in an economically unequal world. The congress talked about moving away from the idea of giving and receiving, and instead focusing on equality, interdependence and mutual responsibility. The congress talked about needing to examine rigorously the senses in which we use the word “mission” in describing something we do for somebody else.

Perhaps one of the most revealing comments in the final document is: “Mission is not the kindness of the lucky to the unlucky; it is mutual, united obedience to the one God whose mission it is. The form of the Church must reflect that.”

If we truly believe that we are children of God and brothers and sisters in Christ, then we have a most profound responsibility, not only to our family of birth but also to our brothers and sisters around the world.

We see glimpses of this connectedness, often in times of tragedy. On April 15, 2014, when Boko Haram kidnapped over 270 girls from a secondary school in Chibok, Nigeria, there was an outcry across the world, and we saw many people become a part of the “Bring Back Our Girls” campaign, including First Lady Michelle Obama. The cry was, “Bring back our girls,” not “those” girls or “their” girls, but “our” girls.

More recently, after the terrorist attacks in Paris, the global community again rallied together, announcing “Je suis Charlie” – “I am Charlie” – to show solidarity with the murdered staff of the satirical French newspaper Charlie Hebdo.

There are times in our collective consciousness when we know that we are all intimately connected, part of the same global community and children of God. Within the church, many people experience this during major feasts and seasons of the year, when we can feel the prayers of millions of people during Lent, or Easter or Christmas. The wonderful thing about being an Episcopalian and a member of the worldwide Anglican Communion is that we also know that we are connected by the Book of Common Prayer, in which, although it has been culturally adapted and written in many languages, our foundational prayers are the same and are said by over 80 million people around the world every Sunday.

How would it look if this sense of oneness, this sense of being part of a global family was something we felt on a more regular and intimate basis?

The Episcopal Church is a missionary church; our corporate name declares that, in that we are the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society. Our Baptismal Covenant declares that in what we say we believe, and how we say we will act.

The Episcopal Church continues to send out missionaries around the world, both young and young at heart. With the Young Adult Service Corps there is an opportunity for those between the ages of 21 and 30 years old to journey to another part of the Body of Christ and to see the Holy Spirit moving around the world. The Episcopal Church also offers opportunities for older adults to serve throughout the Anglican Communion.

While our parishes, dioceses and denomination send out missionaries around the world, we are all called to participate in this ministry. We are all called to pray alongside, to mutually support, to advocate for, to be with, to share stories with, to listen to, and to worship together with our sisters and brothers around the world.

As we were reminded in that 1963 congress, we do not “do mission to or for others.” Mission is not an activity in which someone is “sent” and “received,” mission is not the kindness of the lucky to the unlucky, of giving a little out of our excess. Mission is about being in a fully mutual and interdependent relationship, in which we recognize that we are blood of the same blood, flesh of the same flesh.

Where one person hurts, we all hurt. When one person is not able to live fully into their humanity because of a lack of human rights, then we are all in pain.

While we see glimpses of this connection at times of great joy and time of great sadness, our challenge is to see this connection every moment of every day. The challenge is to feel this connection to our sisters and brothers when we are engaged in our daily life, whether this is buying fair-trade coffee or lobbying for equal opportunities and better living conditions for those who work in factories around the world making the clothes we wear.

World Mission Sunday reminds us that we are all intimately connected to one another. The girls who were kidnapped in Nigeria are our sisters and daughters. The families who live in hunger in Sudan are part of our family. The children who are not able to go to school in West Africa because of Ebola are our children, just as much our flesh and blood as our families at home.

Our challenge, as it is every day of every week, is how do we live into this “Christian reality” of life? How do we live out our baptismal vows faithfully? How can we learn to be a global community as God has called us to live into?

On a practical level we can certainly become more informed:

  • We can listen to the world news and become educated about our brothers and sisters who are suffering.
  • We can learn about the work of the Episcopal Church’s missionaries through its website.
  • We can advocate for the poor and connect with the Episcopal Public Policy Network.
  • We can give through Episcopal Relief & Development.
  • We can pray for our brothers and sisters.
  • We can visit, share our stories and listen to the stories of others.

Lifting up placards and declaring our solidarity with one another at time of crises acknowledges our unity together and is important for us to do. We are also invited by God to lift up our hearts, our minds and our very being to connect with our global family.

Today is World Mission Sunday; we are invited to live into our baptismal vows and to engage concretely in mutual and interdependent relationships with our brothers and sisters around the world.

 

— The Rev. David Copley is the Episcopal Church’s officer for Mission Personnel. He was a missionary in Liberia and Bolivia and priest in the Diocese of Southern Virginia before accepting his current position.

Is there healing without curing?, 5 Epiphany (B) – 2015

February 8, 2015

Isaiah 40:21-31; Psalm 147:1-12, 21c; 1 Corinthians 9:16-23; Mark 1:29-39

Sometimes it’s difficult to get a conversation started or bring discussion to a deeper level. Luckily, there’s a game called TableTopics that is meant to get conversation started between two people or group. TableTopics is a clear cube filled with cards that have one question on each, and there are a variety of versions out there, including a Book Club version, Family version, and Spirit version. Each person in the group draws a card and reads their question, and all take turns answering. The Spirit version helps people get into deeper conversation that is helpful for exploring personal faith, as well as getting to know others better.

For example, one of the questions in the Spirit version leads to a discussion about the difference between being healed and being cured. Is there a difference between being cured and being healed? Can you be cured without being healed? Can you be healed without being cured?

When we are physically ill, we want a cure to make us feel better. But even though we may be cured of our ailment, it doesn’t mean that we are healed. Our understanding of healing, especially in our gospel stories, means something more: It means a restoration of wholeness, particularly when it comes to our spiritual lives. When we are healed, even if we’re not cured of a physical ailment, we have the ability to rejoin our community in whatever way we can and be at peace on our path.

Throughout our lives, we meet people – and sometimes are the person – burdened with physical and spiritual illness. There’s a story about a woman who was in the hospital quite ill with cancer and estranged from her sister because of something that happened years before. She knew she was dying and talked to the hospital chaplain about her sister and how she was finally ready to stop nursing the grudge she had for all those years. She was ready to make amends. They prayed together about it and she cried because it hurt – not only to let the grudge go, but because she realized all the years and energy that had been wasted in maintaining that anger. When she was able to repent for her part in the estrangement, she was finally healed. She felt wholeness, even though her body was still sick. She felt right with God and restored to the community that she longed for.

When we are ready to be healed, it demands action on our part. It demands that we are ready to invite Jesus into that place that is wounded and help us. In our reading from the Gospel of Mark today, notice that Jesus doesn’t just seek people out who are sick; instead, they come to him, either on their own or through the disciples. Simon’s mother-in-law is brought to Jesus’ attention as soon as they got to the house, and as soon as he healed her, she immediately goes about serving Jesus and the others of the house. She was restored to her community and to wholeness. Her healing demanded a response.

It is interesting that the word translated as “serve” here is the same that Jesus uses to describe himself as the “one who comes to serve” and also the same word used when the angels “waited on” Jesus in the wilderness. This example of serving embodies the ideal of discipleship as service to others, which was what Jesus was trying to get people to understand. It was because of the mother-in-law’s encounter with Jesus that she responded with immediate discipleship.

Although Jesus continues to cure many who were sick and to cast out demons, he did not allow the demons to speak because he did not want people to know he was the Messiah, the secret that is a big part of Mark’s gospel. His fame was already spreading from when he taught with authority in the synagogue at Capernaum and cast out an unclean spirit there. But Jesus’ call was always first and foremost to proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom of God; everything else, including the miracle healings and exorcisms, was secondary. They just helped him establish “street cred” as someone not to be trifled with.

As it happens in human nature, people were getting caught up with the messenger and not the message. We’ve all been there. We get caught up in the hype of someone who is charismatic, and the next thing you know, you’re buying something, giving away your savings, donating a kidney, or whatever it is that person has seduced you into. Jesus was trying to avoid that reputation, in a way. He didn’t want to be seen as just another wonder-worker, because that was not his mission. His mission was to proclaim that the Kingdom of God is here, through God’s authority, not human authority.

It is in the third part of our gospel story today that Jesus teaches us something else that is very important. After all that healing and casting out of unclean spirits, Jesus gets up in the early morning and goes out to a deserted place to pray. Observing morning prayers was a regular part of Jewish religious practice, and we know that the desert or the wilderness in biblical tradition were places where a person would make contact with God; so it makes sense that Jesus does this. After all that pouring out of himself in the previous days, Jesus needed to get in touch with God again. Being battered with the intense and desperate needs of the world can make things a little foggy. We know how that feels. When your boss needs, your spouse needs, your family needs, your school needs, your church needs, your friend needs, it is easy to forget what God needs. So Jesus goes out to pray and be reminded of who he is and what his mission is by the one who sent him.

The translation in the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible for this passage is particularly descriptive. It says, “And Simon and his companions hunted for him.” Jesus was being hunted like prey being stalked by a lion.

How many times have we felt that way? The needs of the world around us are overwhelming – we could help people all day and never fully satisfy all their needs. Jesus is showing us another way. He is teaching us when we should say no to something. He is teaching us how to discern what God is calling us to. If Jesus had come to solve all the aches and pains of people on earth, then we would be sitting here with a very different gospel and none of us would ever catch the flu or have arthritis.

Jesus gets his priorities straight by talking to God, and he realizes it’s time to move on and proclaim the gospel somewhere new. There will always be more need than one person can deal with, that’s why discipleship is important. The response to an encounter with Jesus is a converted life – a life in line with manifesting the Kingdom of God in the world, proclaiming the Good News of God in Jesus Christ.

The theologian and Archbishop of Canterbury, William Temple, once said, “The Church is the only society that exists for the benefit of those who are not its members.” There’s a whole world out there that hasn’t heard the Good News yet. Isn’t it time that we followed Jesus and told them?

 

— The Rev. Danáe Ashley is the part-time associate priest at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Seattle. She is currently working on becoming a licensed marriage and family therapist. You can learn more about her on the Soul Spa Seattle website.

Building up, not puffing up the church, 4 Epiphany (B) – 2015

February 1, 2015

Deuteronomy 18:15-20; Psalm 111; 1 Corinthians 8:1-13; Mark 1:21-28

The gospel, on this fourth Sunday in the season of Epiphany, plunges us into the acts and words of one who speaks with authority. The light of Epiphany shines today on the character of the one sent from God. The evangelist Mark zeroes in on this divine quality at the very beginning of his gospel. He says of those listening to Jesus in the Capernaum synagogue: “They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority and not as the scribes.”

The people in that synagogue knew what the scribes had written. To them, no one was as important, as authoritative a prophet, as Moses. Maybe, hearing the young man from Nazareth on this day, they are remembering the words of Moses concerning true prophets: “The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people: you shall heed such a prophet.”

We know from the unfolding of the stories, both in the Hebrew scriptures and in the gospels, that true prophets are recognized but rarely heeded. We seem to prefer magicians to prophets. It is much easier to solve problems through magic than to spend a lifetime of obedience to the words of the prophets and the demands Christ makes in our lives.

Throughout history, movements arose to make easy knowledge of the divine possible – Gnosticism, theosophy, efforts to call back the dead in order to talk to them – as well as our modern emphasis on meditation as an alternative to prayer and study of the scriptures; one can spend hours enumerating human efforts to avoid the words of the true prophets and to ignore the one who speaks with authority.

It is truly fascinating to read the verses that precede the first lesson read today in Deuteronomy. They enumerate practices that are very old but are still to be found in our times:

“No one shall be found among you who makes a son or daughter pass through fire, or who practices divination, or is a soothsayer, or an augur, or a sorcerer, or one who casts spells, or who consults ghosts or spirits or who seeks oracles from the dead.”

Think, for instance, on titles of popular movies and television shows and remember how many of these practices are found in the culture of the day. As an interesting sidelight, that first practice mentioned – passing through fire – is still found during Epiphany in certain villages of northern Greece. There the faithful, carrying icons of Constantine and Helen, dance until they become ecstatic and then walk over burning coals without suffering from the fire. They are called anastenáridhes. Human beings are attracted to magical solutions and practices. The new faithful are oftentimes confused: Is this something a Christian is allowed to practice or to believe?

This happened very early in the Christian church. The Corinthian believers of the first century, surrounded as they were by so many gods and the different cultures and worship of various people who thronged that rich city, were confused about what Christ asked of them and by what they had learned while living in a multicultural city. They had written to Paul to ask a variety of questions. Among them was the question of diet. Was it proper to eat the meat of animals after these animals had been sacrificed to a pagan god? This was practiced widely in the Roman world. They would offer the whole animal as sacrifice at their pagan temple, but then the meat would be sliced and sold in the marketplace. Some of the new Christians who felt superior because they had knowledge – they were educated – felt free to buy and eat this meat. Others, afraid that they would fall into the sin of idol worship, would refrain from eating meat and would eat only vegetables. Today of course they would be praised as being vegetarian, but in those days food was scarce and people who were knowledgeable were more concerned with feeding their families than with the niceties of the new religion that had its roots in very old Hebrew traditions.

The problem with Paul’s congregation was that the educated ones made fun of the ones who refused to buy the meat. Paul, who probably would have eaten the meat because he knew that it would not defile him, had great compassion for the weaker members of the ekklesia. It is evident from his writings that he dreaded being a stumbling block to a new Christian. He would do anything to support the weak in order not to cause one of them to be afraid or to be lost. Having learned from his Lord what mattered, he zeroed in on what built the congregation and disregarded what puffed up the congregation. Today he probably would ask us: “Do you have a fine choir, a gorgeous building? Good for you. But do you also welcome the stranger? Do you open your doors and hearts to the weak and the poor? Take care of what builds up the body of Christ.”

Paul spoke with the authority of one who lived in total obedience to the one who had called him by name. Jesus spoke with the authority of one who had come from God. We see clearly from the admonitions of Jesus to his followers not to speak about his miracles that he did not want his miracles to attract people to him. He wanted the Word of God to be the central Good News he was proclaiming. But his compassion for the hurting was so great that he could not ignore them but whenever they came before him, he healed them.

But always, always he made sure that the least of his followers – the blind, the weak, the poor, the despised women and the neglected children – were given equal status with those who had the power and who were respected as religious authorities. He made sure that they knew that God loved them and that God had no patience with hypocrisy and self-righteousness. That was his authority; the authority of the true prophet. He spoke and lived and acted in the name of the one who sent him to the world, to us, and this is the one on whom the light of Epiphany shines today. May we see it and rejoice.

 

— Katerina Whitley is an author and retreat leader. She lives and writes in Louisville, Ky.