Sermon: Sunday, January 3, 2016: Epiphany of Our Lord (transferred)

Texts: Isaiah 60:1-6  +  Psalm 72:1-7  +  Ephesians 3:1-12  +  Matthew 2:1-12

It’s been a fortnight since the winter solstice, the longest night. It’s been two full weeks of lengthening days and diminishing nights. The light that shines in the darkness has once again turned the tide, has not been overcome.

Does-blue-light-really-affect-your-sleepIt’s a sign of the times that when I think about a light in the darkness, the first thing that comes to my mind is the way my bedroom looks in the middle of the night when I press the home button on my phone to get a little light so that I don’t wake Kerry up. I can see the outline of all the objects in the room, but not their color. The pale blue light of the screen renders everything in a barely pastel monochrome, a black-and-white picture with a thin wash of sky, but there is no peripheral vision. Where I point the phone I seen the edges of a dresser or a door, but everything else stays black.

The facts of our bedroom are exactly the same in the dark as in the light. The headboard is against the wall, the dresser is next to the closet, the radiator is in the corner. But in the dark I am still five years old, and sometimes when I wake up in the middle of the night my dreaming mind is still driving so I see shadows in the hallway and imagine that someone has broken into our home. I reach out for the phone next to the bed and touch the home button and shine the light around and I can remember what the apartment feels like when there’s food on the table and voices in the living room. A benign reality.

I’m curious about the darkness in your life, and about the light. It is that time of year when many feel the weight of the long nights in every muscle of their bodies, when sleeping and waking don’t feel all that different. For some, the time just after the holidays is filled with resentment or regret, the things said and left unsaid as the family gathered casting a long shadow over the first days of the new year. We know that the past few months in particular have been filled with grief and loss for so many members of our community, and we also remember that each of us carries griefs and losses that we’ve not yet shared. So I wonder about the darkness in your lives, and about the light.

The reading from Isaiah assigned to the festival of Epiphany — which is actually a fixed date on the calendar (January 6), but we’ve transferred to this morning so that we celebrate it together as we transition from the season of waiting and fulfillment to the season of revelation and wonder — begins, “Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.” (Isa. 60:1) The tiny lights we held in our hands on Christmas Eve have matured into a full blown dawn, foreshadowing the morning light at the tomb on Easter Day. “Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning.” (Ps. 30:5) Reading on we hear the prophet imagine a day when “Nations shall come to your light, and rulers to the brightness of your dawn … They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord.” (Isa. 60:3,6)

Because we stop reading there, and pair these verses with the story of the magi coming to witness the birth of Jesus, we reduce the power of the prophet’s voice to mere prediction. If we were to read on, past the end of the assigned verses, we would hear promises of gifts far better than gold and frankincense, the kinds of gifts we have been praying for here in Chicago in the wake of report after report of senseless deaths in our streets:

“The descendants of those who oppressed you shall come bending low to you, and all who despised you shall bow down at your feet; they shall call you the City of the Lord, the Zion of the Holy One of Israel … I shall appoint Peace as your overseer and Righteousness as your taskmaster. Violence shall no more be heard in your land, devastation or destruction within your borders; you shall call your walls Salvation, and your gates Paradise.” (Isa. 60:14,17b-18)

ct-met-aj-1-foot-patrol-0507-jpg-20130506Can you imagine a city where Peace patrolled at night, and Righteousness governed by day? Can you imagine a Chicago where violence was unheard of, a city not subdivided into North and South and West — but united by a common salvation, whose neighborhoods were a living paradise?

In an opinion piece entitled “Dear White America,” written for the New York Times on Christmas Eve last week, George Yancey (a professor of philosophy at Emory University in Atlanta) wrote about the urgency of love as a response to the rising tide of racism in the United States today. It’s a beautiful and challenging essay that he describes as a gift, though reminding us that “some gifts can be heavy to bear.” This is how his letter to White America ends:

“If you have young children, before you fall off to sleep tonight, I want you to hold your child. Touch your child’s face. Smell your child’s hair. Count the fingers on your child’s hand. See the miracle that is your child. And then, with as much vision as you can muster, I want you to imagine that your child is black.”

The word epiphany is connected to the concept of revelation. Over time we have come to use it to signify an experience of insight, that moment when the lights turn on and things sensed in the dark are finally seen in a new way. Reality has not changed, but our experience of it is entirely new.

That is what is happening in this story from the gospel of Matthew in which the rich and powerful prove their wisdom by bringing all they hold precious and gladly giving it away in the presence of the infant Jesus. Epiphany is God’s love letter to a violent world, a heavy gift to bear, in which God’s declares solidarity with all who are oppressed. On the day of Jesus’ birth God declared, “I want you to imagine that I am small, and poor, and Jewish.” Today we might remember of Jesus, “I want you to imagine that I am Palestinian. I am a refugee.”

But anyone might take this story and make it their own, because as the dawn rises the light also spreads, and the news that was good for some people has in time become good for all people. You may hear in the story of the Epiphany, “Imagine I am a woman. I am a survivor. I am undocumented.” The epiphany is that your story is God’s story too.

When the night terrors become too much to bear, and we reach out to press the home button, we realize that God has come as an infant so that we might finally believe that God has come for us, as small and frail and insignificant as we sometimes, or always, feel.

So we celebrate Epiphany this morning, three days before the actual festival, which is fine by me because I think we could use our revelations sooner rather than later and I long to live in a city of Peace and Righteousness. And you, too, however small the light that burns inside of you: trust that it has been growing, the dawn has come, the days are lengthening, and the future is brighter than our expectations for it.

Arise, shine, for your light has come.



Sermon: Sunday, April 27, 2014: Second Sunday of Easter

Texts: Acts 2:14a,22-32  +  Psalm 16  +  1 Peter 1:3-9  +  John 20:19-31

“When it was evening on that day…” (John 20:19)

Do you remember that day? That O Happy Day? I remember that day last week.  My heart is still singing and my mind is still reeling from that day. This house was rocking and rolling to the sounds of praise and worship in celebration of the God of life, predictably showing up to do the unpredictable, to raise the dead. For many of us it was the kind of day when we felt like we could see with our own eyes, touch and taste with our own hands and mouth, the goodness of the Lord, present to us in word and water, in bread and wine. It was the day when the alleluias that had been locked up inside us for forty days were finally set free from the tombs of aching hearts and troubled minds, so that as we came to this cavernous sanctuary and found the stone rolled away and Jesus once again loose in the world, we were able to join with Mary Magdalene who left the tomb and returned to the rest of the disciples, saying “I have seen the Lord!” (John 20:18).

But not all who had known Jesus experienced what Mary and Simon Peter and the disciple whom Jesus loved experienced when they came to the grave that Easter morning. Not everyone who loved Jesus had come to see his empty tomb, so when the word first arrived that Mary had seen the Lord, they sounded like empty words. So, I want to ask you all if there’s ever been a time when all the things that we religious people say, when all the things that Christians say, have sounded like empty words. Has there ever been a time in your life when the things that people say, people who genuinely seem to have faith, didn’t generate any faith in you? If so, would you raise your hand?

If you gave me pen and paper, I could fill it in just a few minutes with the things “people of faith” have said to me that didn’t bring me one inch closer to faith myself. “When God closes a door, he opens a window.” “Let go and let God.” “God doesn’t give us anything we can’t handle.” But not just the easy targets, not just the stock phrases that somewhere, way back, come from some real, felt experience of faith; but the personal testimonies as well. In fact, at times in my life when my own faith has been at its weakest, when I have been filled with doubt in the reality and the presence of a loving God, hearing someone else say “I have seen the Lord” in some truly genuine way has been almost painful. “Why,” I might think, “is that person so certain when I am so uncertain?” I won’t ask you to raise your hands, but I will ask you to examine your hearts this morning, and see if you don’t hear a voice like that, your own true voice, asking that kind of question.

So, when it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, the day Mary had returned from an empty grave with the news that she had seen the Lord, had seen Jesus — not dead, but alive — that day found the followers of Jesus in the house where they had grown accustomed to meeting. Despite Mary’s testimony, they had not left the building, they were not out looking for their friend, they were not conducting a door-to-door search for the teacher they had loved. They were hiding out of fear of the religious authorities that had engineered Jesus’ death.

What kind of fear is that? What kind of fear would it take to keep you committed to your doubts rather than open to your hopes? Because, surely when Mary came back to the house with her incredible story, some part of each of the disciples had to have said, “she’s lost her mind!” Maybe out of grief, maybe out of shock, but this simply can’t be true. But, some other part of each of the disciples knew that it could be true. That the one who had changed water into wine, who had healed the sick, and restored sight to the blind, and fed the multitudes, and walked on the waves, and brought Lazarus back to life, that if there was anyone who might have emancipated himself from the slavery of the grave, it would be Jesus. But they stayed in the house out of fear, because they saw what people with power had done to the leader they loved.

And I wonder if you have known that kind of fear. The kind of fear that follows the death of parent who showed you how to walk bravely in the world, leaving you to wonder if you could ever be as strong as you were when your mother or your father was still there to call you, to coach you, to cheer you on. Or the kind of fear that follows the firing of a co-worker or a supervisor who spoke out in a workplace dominated by silence, who told the truth about what was happening to customers, to clients, to the neighborhood, to the environment, leaving you to wonder if anyone else would ever find the courage to speak out again. The kind of fear that looks like hopelessness when the truth-tellers in our schools, and churches, and City Halls, and congressional hearings get outmaneuvered over and over again by big money and the anonymous machine of politics and power to the detriment of us all, leaving you to wonder if there’s any point to hope at all. The kind of fear that kept the disciples locked away in the house where they’d always met to tell their stories quietly to one another.

If you have, if you’ve known that kind of fear, the fear of failure, of disappointment, of defeat, then imagine how you might feel if the parent, or the coach, or the teacher, or the leader that you loved and admired came and found you, locked away, hiding the gifts they’d nurtured in you, squashing the hopes they’d invested in you, giving up.

I suspect we’ve all done it at one time or another, given up, in ways both big and small. We start early and keep practicing as we get older. We give up on the instrument or the sport we loved as children, giving up on playfulness altogether as we get older. We give up on our friendships with the odd child in school, giving up on all sorts of outsiders as we enter adulthood. We give up on math, or science, or writing, or whatever subject most challenged us as children, only to find ourselves giving up on all sorts of dreams for our careers later in life. We give up on love, on our first love, on the idea of love, and we spend our lives wondering if we will ever find love, ever keep love, ever trust love. We know what it’s like to give up, to hide from the lives we once dreamed of having.

And when someone finally comes and finds us hiding from ourselves, what do we expect will happen? I expect to be scolded or shamed or blamed. I expect to feel embarrassed, even humiliated. I expect to be fired, or dumped, or abandoned. And the fear of each of these outcomes pushes me further and further into that locked room, until I’m somewhere in the back, under the desk, under the covers, hiding, hoping that no one will see what a disappointment I’ve turned into.

You don’t have to raise your hand. We’ve all been there.

The doors were locked that day, but Jesus had told them “I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture” (John 10:9). The one who couldn’t be kept in a grave, certainly couldn’t be kept out of the homes and the hearts of those God loved. So, disregarding every stone blocking the tomb, every lock blocking the home, Jesus came back — not to blame them, or shame them, or fire them, but to free them.

shalom-linda-woods“Shalom,” he says. “Peace be with you.” It means “peace” and “be well” and “greetings” all at the same time. It means, we have come into one another’s presence and my desire for you is that you be whole, and well, and that there be peace between us. It is the reign of God come near. With that word they are set free and they see that the Lord is still with them. So, a second time Jesus says, “Shalom. As [God] has sent me, so I send you.” Because, in addition to meaning “hello,” shalom also means goodbye. It is a word that both receives and sends the one being addressed. The act of being set free is one and the same with the act of being sent out to free and liberate those still trapped behind locked doors. For this reason, Jesus says to them “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

Far from endowing the disciples with special powers, what Jesus is doing here is describing a basic spiritual principle; the very one, in fact, that they have just experienced. By announcing peace to people trapped by their own fears, Jesus has set them free.  Now Jesus tells them that they have been called and commissioned to do the same, to announce peace to all who still live lives of desperation turned inward as self-loathing, turned outward as violence in thoughts, words and deeds.

Remember that in the gospel of John, “sin” isn’t so much a moral transgression, its a lack of relationship. All throughout John’s gospel, Jesus has been bringing people to belief: the woman at the well, the man born blind, the sisters at the grave. Even after his own death and resurrection, Jesus is still working to bring people to belief — belief that there is no power that can bind the power of God welling up on God’s own people, no power that can keep locked the doors of our hearts, or our minds, or our futures which are all secured in God. So, when Jesus sent the disciples out with the power to forgive or to retain, he is pointing to the reality he has just demonstrated for them. If they will forgive people’s fear-driven behavior, if they will announce shalom, peace, well-being, as they greet and send one another, then sin will be cease to hold any power in the world. But if they refuse to announce shalom, peace, well-being; if they come with blame and shame and dismissal, then the world will continue to cower behind locked doors and fear one another.

We are still learning this lesson. We are still coming out from under the desk, under the covers. We are still waiting for Jesus to open the door. It happened for Mary early that day, it happened for the disciples later that day, it happened for Thomas a week later, in that same place where they were accustomed to gathering.  So maybe it happened for you last week, early in the morning, when you heard Peggy singing “O happy day, when Jesus comes” and Kerry singing, “clap your hands if you know that happiness is the truth.” But maybe it came for you later that day, as you looked back and realized that something had broken loose in you, a joy, a hope that you thought was dead, but you sensed coming back to life. Or maybe it took an extra week, and you had to come back to the scene of the miracle to see if it would happen again for you.

The point of the story isn’t about how quickly you experience God’s appearance in your life. The point is how consistently God will keep showing up, week after week, person after person, announcing peace to people trained for war, announcing well-being to people committed to misery, so that we may come to trust God, and in that trust find new life beyond every door.



Sermon: Tuesday, December 25, 2012: Nativity of Our Lord, Christmas Day

Texts:  Isaiah 52:7-10  +  Psalm 98  +  Hebrews 1:1-12  +  John 1:1-14

The Church seems to have its clocks set perennially about four to six weeks ahead.  Even as we gather this morning, the world is already moving on from its celebration of Christmas and preparing for New Year’s Eve parties and the start of a new year.  In the Church, however, we celebrated our New Year almost a month ago with the beginning of the season of Advent.

For three weeks and two days we were students of hope.  Our scriptures and our songs directed our attention toward a moment when God’s future reign would break into our present reality and transform the world around us.  This year, like every year, we have witnessed horrible evidence that the world as it is cannot be the world as God made it.  Our hope has been stretched to its limits, our patience with business as usual has run out.

As the sun set last night and Christians began gathering in sanctuaries around the world to celebrate the eternal birth of Christ into the world, the Church once again set its clock ahead by about six or seven weeks.  Having already begun our New Year, we are now celebrating the festival of love.  Like the one that falls on the ides of February, this festival is also marked with candles, and presents, and sweets.  The love we celebrate this day, however, is more cosmic than the romances of Valentine’s Day.  Today the Church celebrates the reality of the love of God made real and present to us in Christ Jesus, the baby of Bethlehem.

The holy one has so many names.  As we waited for its arrival we heard its heralds calling to it by its aliases.  John the Baptist called it a purifying fire.  Mary’s song called it justice for the oppressed and food for the hungry.  Isaiah called it Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.  Perhaps those are your preferred names for the one who has come.  Perhaps the God you yearn for most is purity, justice, might, peace.  Be that as it may, this morning we are given a different name to know the presence of the divine, and that name is love.

On Christmas morning we read from the gospel of John that Jesus, the baby of Bethlehem, the pre-existing Word, was in the beginning with God and, in fact, was God.  John says,

He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him.  He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. (John 1:10-11)

We might wonder why God would choose to wrap the Word of light and life up in something so fragile as flesh, but John’s gospel doesn’t make us wait long for that answer.  Two chapters later Jesus states his reason for being,

For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.  Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. (John 3:16-17)

Heaven Kiss The EarthThe words are so familiar I barely notice them anymore.  “For God so loved the world…”  How do you feel about the world?  Because, I’ll admit, I’m pretty ambivalent.  It seems like a hard place to be.  It seems pretty callous toward the majority of its people, and pretty cruel toward those who try to do anything about it.  It’s an exhausting world, where there is always more work to be done.  And, it is a heart-breaking world, where wars and violence are always interrupting our lives, making it impossible to ever really settle in here.  We are sometimes drawn to fantasies about some other world, some next world, because this world, right here, is so painful.

But God, who has every option available, including apocalyptic judgement or complete abandonment, chooses not to leave this world but to enter it.  Because God made it, and God loves it.  And this includes you.

God loves you so much.  You are the most precious thing in God’s good creation, and the fact that this is also true of the person sitting in front of or behind you doesn’t take away from that reality one bit.  No matter what was happening at the moment of your conception, no matter how you were treated in the years that followed, the truest, deepest reality is that God was loving you fiercely even before you came into being.  In the incarnation we see that God, in fact, has been moving heaven and earth to get as close to you as possible.  Closer than light.  Closer than words.  As close as bread and wine and water and skin.

It’s important that you hear this.  It’s important that you know this.  Because, without love, all the other names for the holy of holies are hollow.  Purity, without love, is a brittle self-righteousness.  Justice, without love, becomes callous authority.  Might, without love, quickly turns to violence.  Peace, without love, tends toward either tyranny or isolation.  It is love that makes holiness accessible to flawed, ordinary, struggling people like you and me.  It is love that cares enough to stoop down in time, leaving perfection for eternity and making a home in this fragile, broken, wounded world.

This Christmas morning we can see so much more clearly than we could last night, in the dark, by the soft glow of our little candles, that the world is hurting.  We are hurting, perhaps even wondering if it’s time to move on from this world.  But the light of day is also evidence that all nights come to a end, that darkness always gives way to dawn.  By the light of this Christmas morning, as the days begin to lengthen again, our trust is renewed that “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” (John 1:4)

This light has a name.  It is purity.  It is justice.  It is might.  It is peace.  It is Jesus.  It is love.  It is God’s gift to you and to the world, because God loves it all.

Merry Christmas.