Sunday, February 10, 2019

5 Epiphany


February 10, 2019

Isaiah 6.1-13; Luke 5.1-11

+ Last week I observed a somewhat sobering anniversary. On January 29, I realized it had been twenty years since I began the process to be ordained in the Episcopal Church.

It was definitely a momentous moment in my life. Occasionally we have those moments in our lives when we look back and realize the life we lived before that ended on a particular day. These momentous moments happen and we realize life will never be the same again.

January 29, 1999 was one of those days in my life.  Life changed drastically for me on that day, though I didn’t fully realize at the time. And twenty years later, here it is.

As I look back at the 1999 Jamie, I wonder what I—2019 Jamie—would tell him.  Did he really know what he was getting himself into? It was definitely not an easy route he was about to take.

But despite all the heartache and pain, despite homophobia and the cancer and the really terrible people he would encounter at times along the way, at time of seeing the Church be a truly ugly, horrible place at times, despite the people who really did try to throw a wrench into the ministry 1999 Jamie felt called to do, who did not want him to be a priest, or to serve in the Church (and yes, there were lots of those people over the years), I have to ask myself; if I had to do it all over again, would I?

And the answer is: Yes.

Yes.

Because, the good of these years definitely outweighs the bad.  There were so many more good people, supportive people, loving people who were there for me. And the Church, as a whole, really is not a terrible corrupt place.  It really isn’t.

And, of course, I have to accept the greatest reality in all of this: there was God with me through it all.  God held me up and led me through. Or, as the hymn we will sing later today says,

“I will go, Lord, if you lead me.”

God led me.

In the ordination process, there were several scriptures that were often used to describe the discernment and ordination processes.

Our reading from the prophet Isaiah is definitely one of the scriptures people in the process quote often.  A very powerful image of the call and response process of ordination is right there, with God, on the throne, asking:

Whom shall I send? Who will go for us?”

And Isaiah’s response of “Here am I; send me!”

For me, I realize, that call is still resounding my own life:

“Whom shall I send?” God still is asking in my life.

And even 20 years after first heeding that call, I can say again, now:

“Here am I; send me!”

Another of those discernment images was the one we get in today’s Gospel reading. And, like the scripture from Isaiah,  it works. And, like the reading from Isaiah, it’s not just for people who seek ordination. It works for all of us in our ministries.

In that Gospel for today, we have an interesting dynamic happening.  A very enthusiastic crowd has gathered beside the water to hear Jesus preach. Jesus, in a sense, use the boat of these work-weary fishermen for a pulpit to preach to the crowd.

Now, put yourself, for a moment, in the place of those fishermen. They have been working all night. They are trying to come home, clean up and go to bed.

Still, Simon Peter agrees and Jesus beings to teach. Then, Jesus does something a bit strange. He tells these weary guys to throw their nets into the water.  Again, put yourself in the place of the fishermen. Here’s a carpenter’s son—a Rabbi—telling them to do even more work. Certainly anyone else would simply say no and go home.

But not these guys.  They do as Jesus says.  They put the boat out into the water, they put down their nets.  And what happens?  They get fish.

I know none of you this morning fish for a living. For most of us here, in this part of the country, if we fish, we do so for sport. (I don’t fish; I’m vegan. I have never understood why people fish for sport anyway)

So, to some extent, we might not “get” the imagery here. Or rather, we might not “get” the imagery in quite the same way those fishermen Jesus spoke to in today’s Gospel would have.

When Jesus talks about “catching” people for God, it might not mean the same thing for us as it did for those disciples—those men whose very livelihood was catching fish.  Jesus is using their language to make real what they are called to do in following him. Jesus is using what they knew and held dear to go out and do what he is calling them to do.  He is not over-intellectualizing this for them. He is not making it complicated. He is being as straightforward as one can get.

You—fishermen—go out and catch people like you would catch fish.

And that is our job as well. We are called, just as those first disciples were, to bring back people for Christ. We are called just like the Prophets Isaiah, to respond, “Here am I! Send me!”

We are called to not be complacent in our faith. We cannot just sit on our hands and expect to feel good about being a Christian.  

To be a fully useful Christian, we need to go out and be a follower of Jesus in the world and, in doing, so, to bring others to God’s love.

Now, this sounds very uncomfortable for most of us. We have all encountered those somewhat unpleasant people who proselytize to us—who, very obviously, want to catch us.  They have come to our doors or they have called us on the phone or we have worked alongside them at work.  They are the people who preach AT us, who tell us that unless we accept Jesus as our personal Lord and Savior we won’t be saved. They are the ones who spout their memorized verses from their Bibles and give us religious pamphlets and are always talking about their plastic, blond white Protestant Jesus.   And more often than not what they do NOT do is draw us closer to Christ.

Rather, they often make us uncomfortable with the Christian faith.  I’ll be honest, they make even me uncomfortable at times. Often when I hear someone go off to me (and they like to do that to priests, let me tell you), I find myself sitting thee wishing I was Jewish or Buddhist.  Their Christ—their blond plastic Protestant Jesus—seems so unpleasant and alien to those of who strive to know the true Christ.

Now, we Episcopalians just don’t do things like that. We’re not comfortable knocking on doors or spouting Bible passages at strangers or co-workers. After all, doing so rarely works.  And that kind of proselytizing has done great harm in people’s lives.

By spouting Bible passages and waving Bibles at people and demanding that people accept Jesus Christ as their personal Lord and Savior (which, by the way, is completely unscriptural) , and inflicting the fear of hell into people, we aren’t really evangelizing.  We are just manipulating. We are just coercing.  We are just hiding. We are hiding behind the Bible, hiding behind platitudes and tired catch-phrases. We are preaching with our mouths, but not with our hearts and our lives.  Bringing people for Christ sometimes involves nothing more than being who we are and what we are.

I worked with a priest once who loved to repeat something St. Francis of Assisi supposedly said:

“Preach the Gospel, use words only if necessary.”

I like that quote.  And it’s true.

Oftentimes, the loudest preaching we’re ever going to do is by what we do and how we act. By being who we are.  Even being the imperfect, fractured human beings that we are.  And, let me tell you, what we do and how we act is sometimes much harder than preaching with our mouths and hiding behind memorized Bible verses.

In a sense, our very lives should be one long proclamation of the Gospel.

We all should be living the Gospel in our very lives, and then our proclamation comes naturally in how we live and interact with people. We should be clear to those around us who we are:

Yes, we’re Christians—we’re followers of Jesus, just as those people in the boat in today’s Gospel were.

Yes, we’re Episcopalian Christians.

But how do we live that out in our lives? How does that fact become a way to bring people to Christ?

Now for each of here this morning, that might be something different. For one it might mean inviting someone to St. Stephen’s, which I know many of you do. To others it might simply mean living our lives a little differently than our neighbors do, even living our lives a little different than what is expected of Christians to do.  

For many of us, it means standing up and speaking out loudly when we see injustice and oppression and sexism and homophobia and transphobia or any other kind of oppression that causes people to be less than who they are.  And to do so in the name of Christ.

And not just speak out. But to actually live that way of life. To not treat others disrespectfully. To not ignore the homeless in our midst, to not ignore those who are invisible to others.  To do whatever we can to change injustice and oppression, in the name of our God in any way we can.

It might mean being just a compassionate human being in this world.

It might just being a kind, loving person in this world.

Whatever we do—however we do it—all we have to remember is that it is not us who does the proclaiming. It is not us who does the catching, ultimately. It is God’s Spirit in us who does the proclaiming and the catching. And our job is to simply let God use us as we need to be used to bring people to God. It is sometimes as simple as letting God use our actions and our way of life to bring people closer to God.

It doesn’t have to be hard or complicated. It can be as simple as Jesus telling fishermen to bring in people like they bring in fish. It can be as simple as living a life of integrity and uprightness and holiness in all that we do and say. It is as simple as living a life in which we do not allow injustice and oppression to happen around us.

So, let us listen together to what Jesus is saying to us this morning. Bring in people to God.  Let us do it by whatever means we have. Let us do by words, if that works.  Let us do it by actions, if that works. Let us do it by the very ministry of our own selves. Let us hear God’s call to each of us:

“Who will I send? Who will go for us?”

And let us respond:

“Here am I! Send me!”

And let us let God, who dwells within us, use our voices to proclaim God’s words and presence to the world around us. Amen.


Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Sunday, February 3, 2019

The Presentation of Jesus in the Temple


February 3, 2019

Luke 2. 22-40


+ So, let’s see if you can remember this. What happened 40 days ago yesterday?

I know it’s hard.

But, yes, Christmas happened 40 days ago yesterday.

I know it’s hard to even think of Christmas, now in early February. It feels so long ago already. But, 40 days ago we commemorated the birth of Jesus.

Which is why, today, we are commemorating the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple.  Which simply means that, in Jewish tradition, the first born son was to be presented to God in the Temple on the 40th day after his birth.  And on that day, the child was to literally be redeemed.

This is reminiscent of the story of Abraham and his first son Isaac. But instead of an attempt to sacrifice the son, an animal sacrifice would’ve made in the place of the life of the son, which in the case of Jesus’ family who were poor, would have been two doves.

Now why, you might ask? Why 40 days? Well,  until about the Thirteenth century, it was often believed that the soul did not even enter a boy child until the 40th day. (The soul entered a girl child on the 80th day) I suppose this kind of thinking had to do with the high rates of infant mortality at the time.

So essentially, on the 40th day, the boy child becomes human. The child now has an identity—a name.  And the child is now God’s own possession.

Now, we’ll get into the specifics of Jesus’ own particular presentation in the Temple in a moment.  For now, we just need to recognize that this feast of the Presentation has been an important one of the Church.

In fact, it’s been a very important feast in the Church from the very beginning. Of course the Eastern Church, which celebrates Jesus’ birth on January 6, doesn’t celebrate the Feast of the Presentation until when???        February 14th.

This day is also called Candlemas, and today, of course, we at St. Stephen’s, in
keeping with a tradition going back to the very beginning of the Church, will bless the candles that will be used throughout the church year on this day.  In the early Church, all the candles that would be used in the Church Year and in individual people’s lives would be blessed on this day.  Here, as the hope of spring is in the air.  

The candles blessed on this day for personal use were actually considered a little more special than other candles. They were often lit during thunderstorms or when one was sick or they would be placed in the hands of one who was dying. The reason being, the flame of  blessed candle reminded people of God’s love and protection in their lives.   

It was also believed that the weather on this day decided what the rest of winter would be like.  In fact there was also a wonderful little tune used in rural England that went:

If Candlemas-day be fair and bright
Winter will have another fight
If Candlemas-day brings cloud and rain,
Winter won’t come again.

What does that sound like? Yes, Ground Hogs Day. In fact, Ground Hogs Day, which originated in Germany, was a Protestant invention to counteract what they perceived to be this Catholic feast—even though the Lutheran Church has always celebrated this feast.

Now all of that is wonderful and, I think, is interesting in helping understand this feast day and in its importance in the life of the Church and the world.  But the real message of this day is of course the fact, in presenting Jesus in  Temple, the Law of God in Jesus was being fulfilled.

This morning, in this feast,  we find the old and the new meeting. That is what this feast we celebrate today is really all about . The Feast of the Presentation is all about the Old and the New meeting.
 In fact, in the Eastern Orthodox Church, this feast is called the Meeting  of Christ with Simeon.

In our Gospel reading for today, we find Simeon representing the Old Law. He is the symbol of the Old Testament—the old Law. We have Simeon who, it seems, is a priest in the Temple. He is nearing the end of  his life.  He knows he is in his last days. But he also knows something new is coming. Something new and wonderful and incredible is about dawn.  The Messiah, he knows, is about to appear. And, of course, that is important for all Jewish people. This is the event they have been longing for, deeply.  If he was a priest, he performed those Levitical rites that fulfilled the Law. He oversaw the rites of purification.

Mary herself—as a devout Jew—would certainly be going through the purification rites all mothers had to go through on this fortieth day, according to the Law we find in the Book of Leviticus.  

Simeon would also have presided over the dedication service of the new child to God, which, of course, would have included both his naming and his circumcision.  All of this fulfils the Old Law.

Then, of course, there is a figure who we always seem to overlook in the scripture. The Prophet Anna.  I like Anna for some reason.  She seems to be the bridge here.  She seems to come forward out of the background.
Now whether she recognizes Jesus has the Messiah is not clear.  But it seems like she suspects that’s who he is.  What she sees is Jesus—born under the most unusual of circumstances.

In case we forgot what happened 40 days ago, he was conceived and born of a virgin, with angels in attendance, with a bright shining star in the sky and mysterious strangers coming from the East.

These are signs.  This is no ordinary person. This is the Messiah. This is the Son of God whom God has sent to us.  And in Jesus, we have the Law fulfilled.

Eventually, in this baby that comes before Simeon, the old Law and the New Law become blended and brought together.  The Law is fulfilled in this baby, who will grow up, to proclaim God’s kingdom in a way no else has before or since.

But no doubt we start asking this important question: why do we even need the Old Testament. If Jesus came to fulfill it, it seems pointless. But what we need to remember is that this New Law does not overcome or cancel out the old Law. It only solidifies it. It makes it more real.

The Old Law will simply change because now there will be no more need of animal sacrifices and atonement offerings. In Jesus—this ultimate Lamb of God—those offerings are taken away. They were needed then. They are not needed now. But they foreshadowed what was to come. We have one offering—that offering of Jesus on the Cross—and through it we are all purified.

But even more so than that. This Feast of the Presentation is about us as well. We too are being Presented today.  We too are presented before God—as redeemed and reborn people. We too are being brought before God in love.

And just as the favor of God was upon Jesus, so that same favor is upon each of us as well.  From this day forward we know that we are loved and cherished and favored by God. We know that we are all essentially loved children of God, because Jesus, the first born, led the way for us. 

The Old Law hasn’t been done away for us. Rather, the Old Law has been fulfilled and made whole by the New . Everything that the Old Law was anticipating was fulfilled in the New Law.  

We see that there is a sort of reverse eclipsing taking place. The Old Law is still there. But the New has overtaken it and outshines it.

See, it really is a wonderful day we celebrate today. The Feast of the Presentation speaks loudly to us on many levels. But most profoundly it speaks to us of God’s incredible love for us.

So, this morning, on this Candlemas, let us be a light shining in the darkness. Let us carry that light of God within us like the Christ Child who was presented in the Temple.  We, like Jesus being presented to Simeon, are also be presented before God today and always.

So let us rejoice.  Let us speak to all who are looking for redemption. And with Simeon, let us sing:

“Now you may dismiss your servant in peace, according to your word;
For my eyes have now seen your salvation which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples.”

Amen.