Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Third Sunday after the Epiphany

Isa 9:1-4, 1 Cor 1:10-18, Mat 4:12-23
January 23, 2011
The Rev Deborah Magdalene

Two weeks ago tomorrow President Barak Obama gave a eulogy for the innocent victims of the recent massacre in Tucson. He gave words of comfort to grieving families, friends, and coworkers; he summarized the lives of the dead, giving us all a better idea of their common humanity; and he encouraged Americans to refrain from blaming those who think differently from us.

Obama said, “It’s important for us to pause for a moment and make sure that we are talking with each other in a way that heals, not a way that wounds.”
Those words carried light into my heart, and made me grateful that I wasn’t listening to a political speech, like I’d expected, but a sermon: a crafting of words chosen to illuminate the good news of hope in humanity, and faith in God’s power to help us change old behaviors.

Obama quoted Job to describe the suddenness of the attack in Tucson, “When I looked for light, then came darkness.” The whole verse reads, “But when I looked for good, evil came; and when I waited for light, darkness came.” (Job 30:26)

The people lined up to meet Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords that Saturday were there because of an active interest in their representative – to make real their little corner of Arizonan democracy. The last thing they expected was the sudden darkness of senseless tragedy.

In times of shock and grief we have an instinct to do something to make the hurt go away. Obama encouraged everyone to use that ‘do-something’ energy to do the hard work of “[Becoming] willing to challenge old assumptions in order to lessen the prospects of violence in the future.”

Challenging old assumptions – sounds strikingly like the language of Martin Luther King Jr. On September 16, 1963, King said in his “Eulogy for the [3] Young Victims of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church Bombing” in Birmingham, Alabama,

“God still has a way of wringing good out of evil. And history has proven over and over again that unmerited suffering is redemptive. The innocent blood of these little girls may well serve as a redemptive force that will bring new light to this dark city… The spilled blood of these innocent girls may cause the whole citizenry of Birmingham to transform the negative extremes of a dark past into the positive extremes of a bright future. Indeed this tragic event may cause the white South to come to terms with its conscience.”

This theme of God’s light breaking-in to transform heartbreaking, evil and unjust circumstances is what runs through our church season of Epiphany.

The first line of the Psalm for today says it well, “The LORD is my light and my salvation; whom then shall I fear?” (Ps 27:1) We must always be attentive to the inbreaking of God’s grace in our human history.

God has a habit of breaking-in to the world’s chaos and creating light. In God’s world, “Let there be light,” is not a past event, but an ongoing process of creation. Where there is darkness God will create light.

The rainbow after the flood is the magical light-filled promise of God’s new covenant with his people. The light emanating from Moses’ burning bush and the pillar of light that guides the Hebrew people through the wilderness are examples of the inbreaking of God’s transparent clarity and power in times of struggle. God actions are not obtuse.

God speaks to us with the clarity of light. But we have to walk through some dark, difficult, and depressing times before the light can break through. This is why we repent of our shortsightedness and clumsy self-centeredness before we can feel the inbreaking of light through God’s forgiveness.

Isaiah cries out, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness – on them has light shined.” (Isa 9:2)
Here the prophet is encouraging the Hebrew people who lived in the areas in and around Galilee in the 8th century before Christ. They were overtaken by the Assyrians and had lost all control over their own lives. The lands of Zebulun and Naphtali were the Assyrian names given to the areas in and adjacent to first Century Galilee.

Isaiah prophesies that the Assyrian oppressor will fall and that the Hebrew communities of faith will be restored. The troubled people of Galilee will gain control over their lives, will be able to worship their God freely, and will have no need to fear any more. “The LORD is my light and my salvation; whom then shall I fear?”

In Paul’s letter to the troubled community of Corinth, he warns of the same dissensions that trouble Americans after the shooting in Tucson. Different factions are trying to gather momentum and overpower each other in their bids for supremacy. The impulse to do something creates chaotic and pointless posturing and resentment. Human behavior hasn’t changed much in two thousand years.

Paul believes that any factions competing for power are in blatant denial of the light and truth of the gospel. “Was Paul crucified for you?...Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?...Has Christ been divided?” (1 Cor 1:13)

Paul is striking them with his sarcasm in order to wake them up and shake them. All that matters to Paul is that they understand the radical message of the cross.
“For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” (1 Cor 1:18) This is one of the most famous quotes of Paul that encapsulates the new saving grace of the death of Christ.

Jesus died as a common criminal in direct opposition to the belief that the Messiah was coming as a powerful leader in this world. Jesus in fact came to us as the inbreaking of God’s world into ours, turning everything upside down and sideways. The power of Christ is the power of transformation – not takeover.

Because of the brutal way Jesus died the majority of faithful Palestinian Jews couldn’t get their heads around the transformation of God’s promise to them. They could not reconcile that God’s emissary died the most shameful and public death of an enemy of the people.

Paul emphasizes the cross for a reason. It is only through embracing the complete humiliation of being a fragile human being and dying a death that terrifies the most faithful Jews that he could expose the radical love of God.
This is a love that follows us down into the grave, embracing all that is lost and hopeless, in order to raise us up in the full sunlight of God’s forgiving grace.

Paul knows that if the Corinthians had fully realized what Jesus did for them they would drop all their self-centered arguing and posturing and fall down on their knees in awe. There is no need to follow anyone but Christ. Paul doesn’t want followers, and he ridicules their desire to follow anyone but Christ. He wants believers who know what a precious gift they have been given.

esus brings eternal life to those who believe. The promise that the Kingdom of God is near – that because we believe that Christ is the Son of God and that he rose from the dead – the Kingdom of God has now entered our lives and has the power to change old behaviors. In God’s Kingdom we never have to fight our way to the top of the pile.

Fighting for political power, for human attention, or for religious popularity is another way of saying that you have lost the central message of Christ. Christ came to us in order to bring us the prism of new light. Nothing is the same when you keep your eyes glued to the wisdom of Christ’s saving power.

The ramifications of getting caught up in crowd mentality are nothing short of denying the message of the gospel. Our guide for behavior is our faith that God will guide us in no less a way than God guided Jesus – through the most painful work we can imagine in order to bring us out into the light.

When Jesus called the fishermen Peter, Andrew, James and John, he was calling them to a new vocation. He called it, “Fishers of men.” But he never tells them, or us, exactly how we go about this kind of fishing.

Do we brag that we have the best church in town? Do we attract believers by inventing new and exciting programs? Do we call all our old friends who used to come here and ask why we haven’t seen them recently? Do we walk door-to-door and share with the neighborhood our stories of salvation?

Jesus never tells us to do any of that. But he does say, “Follow me.” Follow me and I will move you through darkness to a great light; for you are sitting in the region and shadow of death and cannot see that the light has dawned.

It is only through repentance of our old habits that keep us stuck and unable to see the Christ-light in the faces of those who love us – it is through repentance of our inability to consider a radical change in our lives – it is through repentance of our attitudes of hopelessness and our exaggerations of doom and gloom that we can relax and feel God’s blessings and love forgive us and set us free at last.

Jesus began his ministry in Galilee. Matthew emphasizes that this was to fulfill Isaiah’s prophesies. Jesus came to Galilee to live as God’s light of justice and reconciliation. When he says ‘Follow me’ he doesn’t promise that it won’t hurt. But he does promise that through our transformed lives we will not only see light, but will bring light to others. “The LORD is my light and my salvation; whom then shall I fear?”

God did not let bad things happen to the innocent people in that shopping center in Tucson two weeks ago. But God can salvage souls by showing us the way through painful times.

Nine year-old Christina Taylor Green was born on 9-11 in the year two thousand and one. She was one of 50 children born in the United States on that day. President Obama wisely used the story of her brief life to illustrate the saving power of hope.

Because Christina had such an unusual gratitude for the gifts God had given her he encouraged us to not let her death be the last word. Christina was fascinated by the world of politics and believed that she could make a difference in the world.
Obama said, “I want us to live up to her expectations. I want our democracy to be as good as she imagined it. All of us - we should do everything we can to make sure this country lives up to our children's expectations.”

The Good News that Jesus brings us all is that we have to work hard to discern God’s will for our communities. It is through the hard work of doing justice, bringing reconciliation, and acting abiding love that we bring light to our communities and to one another. “The LORD is our light and my salvation; whom then shall we fear?” We need fear no one.

The Baptism of Christ

Sunday, January 9, 2011
The Rev Deborah Magdalene

In the movie, ‘Oh Brother Where Art Thou,’ three men escape from a chain gang and begin an epic journey through the South, looking for an illusive hidden treasure. At one point in their journey, as they are walking through a dimly lit forest, they begin to hear the sound of many people singing:

“As I went down in the river to pray
Studying about that good ol' way
And who shall wear the starry crown?
Good Lord show me the way!”

The fugitives hide among the trees and watched transfixed as a large group of men and women, dressed completely in white, hurry toward a ravine where a large, lazy southern river winds its way through the forest.

“O sisters let's go down
Let's go down, come on down
O sisters let's go down
Down in the river to pray.”

Then, continuing to sing, one man wades into the river and beckons the first woman in line to come into the water. With a forceful shove on her shoulders, the preacher pushes the woman down into the water and holds her there for a breathless moment.

The force of a gale propels the woman up out of the water shaking and sputtering with new life. She has no time to catch her breath as another woman approaches, ready for her turn to be shoved into the water. And so it goes, as everyone takes their turn to be baptized in the river.

Suddenly, one of the fugitives breaks free from their hiding place among the trees and pushes his way through the people-in-white and into the river, presenting himself eagerly to the preacher. The preacher looks him in the eye, recognizes his desire, and shoves him into the water.

Up he comes shouting jubilantly “I been saved! I been saved!” while his friends shake their heads in disbelief. What looks like foolhardiness to them is a true epiphany for the baptized man. Throughout the rest of their journey he remains a changed man. He thinks about his actions and worries about the helpless. It was a new being that rose up out of that lazy river.

This last Thursday was the Feast of the Epiphany, and the first day of the season of Epiphany. This is when we traditionally celebrate the arrival of the wise men, guided on their journey by a bright and luminous star, to Christ’s manger in Bethlehem. The foreign wise men traveled hundreds of miles in order to see a tiny prophet who would reach across boundaries and bring all nations together in peace.

When the magi visited the baby Jesus it was a foretelling of the future of Christianity. Because of Jesus, all nations would be invited to recognize the true nature of God. When the magi leaned in to worship the infant Jesus they recognized something new coming into the world.

This is what the word ‘epiphany’ means: a breaking-through of divinity into human understanding… a ‘showing’ or an appearance of God’s true nature in the midst of the darkness of our struggles, disappointments, and fears.

The word ‘epiphany’ can also mean a “perception of truth by means of a sudden intuitive realization.” We’ve all experienced an epiphany. Cartoons illustrate a light-bulb turning on suddenly in the bubble over someone’s head – that ‘aha’ moment when everything becomes clear and Popeye has a new idea.

This ‘new idea’ shines through the ministry of Christ throughout the season of Epiphany – unique manifestations of God’s nature as seen through the saving humanity of Jesus.

We traditionally celebrate the baptism of Christ on this first Sunday after the Epiphany. It is at the River Jordan that the immensity of Jesus’ ministry to the people of God is made clear to him. As he rose up out of the meandering waters of the Jordan River “suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him.” (Mat 3:16)

As Matthew tells the story, this is the first time that Jesus hears the voice of God, “This is my Son, the Beloved, in whom I am well pleased.” (Mat 3:17) It is only after the baptism and this anointing by the Spirit of God that Jesus begins his public ministry.

In his novel, ‘The Last Temptation’, Nikos Kazantzakis explores how Jesus might have suffered before his baptism by John. He imagines that as Jesus reached adolescence he began to experience crushingly painful headaches that accompanied frightening ideas about his own death and the suffering of his people.

Except for the pain, these experiences were all shadowy and indistinct. The teenaged Jesus felt the deepest part of his being struggle with these bizarre visions that came from an even deeper and mysterious place within him. It was not until his meeting with John the Baptist that Jesus discovered the truth of his destiny.

Matthew emphasizes that it takes two important figures coming together in righteousness in order to complete God’s plan. The Baptizer immediately recognizes the holy nature of Jesus and begins to back away from him in humility. “No, no, it is you who should be baptizing me!”

But Jesus draws John back to him with the words, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness." (Mat 3:15) And so the baptism becomes a dual act, an obedient coming-together of the baptizer and the baptized, setting the stage for God to show himself to Jesus.

The word, ‘righteousness’ is very important to Matthew. He uses either the word ‘righteous’ or ‘righteousness’ repeatedly throughout his gospel, drilling the concept it represents into our understanding.

So. What does ‘righteousness’ mean to Matthew? Joseph is called ‘righteous’ when he takes his dreams seriously and agrees to wed Mary and make a home for the Christ child. Jesus teaches that those who hunger and thirst for ‘righteousness’ are blessed and will be fed. (Mat 5:6) He says again, “Strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness,” and all that you truly need will be given to you. (6:33)

Righteousness can mean justice, uprightness, and redemption. It can be an attitude or an action. When we comply with God’s righteousness it implies that we are working, with unified attitude and action, toward the completion of God’s work on earth. We are literally bringing in the Kingdom of God with God.

Jesus and John the Baptist work together as equals, conforming their actions to God’s righteousness. This public moment becomes the template for all future baptisms in the name of Christ.

When the priest helps the child of God emerge from the water bath, they have participated together in the birth of a new being. For Christians, each time we witness a baptism we remember not only the moment of Christ’s own baptism, but his death on the cross.

Like the preacher in the movie, the cross shoves Jesus into the darkness of the river of death, where he stays long enough for us all to lose hope. Then, in complete alignment with God’s righteousness, Christ rises from the depths of the grave as a new and radiant being.

This is our promise, as baptized members of Christ’s family. Like Jesus, we know that we are beloved by God, and that we now share his new and radiant life in our lifetime and in the next.

Baptism is where it begins. Eternity is where it continues. It is the water that is our physical and outward reminder that we are part of God’s plan.
The oil used to seal the new Christian is a reminder of the epiphany of God to Jesus. As Jesus heard the voice of God, we hear the voice of the priest saying, ‘You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever.’ (BCP p.308)

This public act of adoption into Christ’s family was so important to the early Christians that it became part of their earliest creeds. In fact, in the reading we have today from Acts we hear an early form of this creed in Peter’s speech to Cornelius and his family:

“You know the message God sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ-- he is Lord of all. That message spread throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John announced: how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him.” (Acts 10:36-38)

Peter’s speech reminds us of the close link between Christ’s baptism in the water, followed by the sealing of the Holy Spirit. And at the end of Matthew’s Gospel he makes clear that the mission of the new Church is inseparable from baptism.

After the resurrection, Jesus appears to his closest followers, saying powerfully, ‘Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And lo, behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Mat 28:19-20)

Jesus and John the Baptist showed us how to align ourselves with God’s righteous plan for his world. It is in baptism that we celebrate the new life we have in Christ as we are joined to Him and adopted as God’s own children forever.

Whether or not we remember the event, at our baptism God takes up residence in our hearts, willing us daily to pay attention to the holy and righteous purpose of God seeking to live through our attitudes and actions.

Like Christ, our ministry begins at the moment of our baptisms.
We belong to God, and nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. We are all gathered at the river, looking forward to the day when we will rise with Christ to life eternal.