Worship notes for Epiphany I...

NOTE: Here are my worship notes for this coming Sunday, January 12,
2014.  As we explore the spirituality of Epiphany more carefully, many of the old stories become new again.


Introduction
All of the biblical texts we’re asked to consider today speak of turning points that hold unknown possibilities for each of us, for all of us and for the whole creation.  These turning points are sometimes personal, other times historical and often take shape and form in what we call the liturgical rhythm of our worship and prayer.  Different insights about these turning points, you see, are expressed in the songs and prayers and aesthetics of worship as we journey together from Advent to Christmas, Christmas to Epiphany, Epiphany to Lent all the way to Pentecost. And while the stories of this journey are usually focused upon Jesus, they invite us to consider where God is meeting us along the way in our lives, too.  The wise and poetic Frederick Buechner put it like this:

Life itself can be thought of as an alphabet by which God graciously makes known his presence and purpose and power among us. Like the Hebrew alphabet, the alphabet of grace has no vowels, and in that sense God’s words to us are always veiled, subtle, cryptic, so that it is left to us to delve into their meaning, to fill in the vowels for ourselves by means of all the faith and imagination we can muster. Now God speaks to us in such a way, presumably, not because he chooses to be obscure but because, unlike a dictionary word whose meaning is fixed, the meaning of an incarnate word is the meaning it has for the one it is spoken to, the meaning that becomes clear and effective in our lives only when we ferret it out for ourselves

Now I have to tell you that I am knocked-out by Buechner’s suggestion that our lives contain some of God’s words to us. I love the notion that God is still speaking to us in all things.  What we must learn to do is listen to our lives with all the faith and imagination we can muster if we want to grow as people of integrity, depth and grace.  This is clearly one of the ways the Word becomes Flesh, yes?

Some of us, of course, don’t want to go deeper – and it isn’t up to me to judge why – I just know it to be true.  It could be that we’re too weary at this moment in time – or too afraid – or too sad.  Sometimes we’re just too lazy to try – I know that has been true in my life – and we’re not all that different. There are a multiplicity of reasons why we don’t want to give the energy to listening to our lives. And sometimes we don’t even know why we can’t go deeper. It is just where we are in life.

But for those who are ready – for those who are willing and able to embrace the invitation to listen for the word of the Lord within our lives – God promises us a powerful, perplexing, awesome, challenging and enriching encounter with the sacred as it become flesh within and among us.  Buechner is right in telling us it requires all the faith and imagination we can muster to “ferret out for ourselves” what the Holy One is saying to us at any given moment in time.  It also takes some guidance and assistance which is where worship comes back into to the picture; worship is where we first learn to listen for the word of the Lord in our lives. By paying attention to the turning points in Christ’s story we begin to realize that what was true for Jesus is also true for you and me.

+  Are you with me on that?  Do you know what I am saying? 

+  We don’t continually rehearse the story of the Lord just to memorize the facts.  No, we watch, listen, ponder and sing about Christ to know how God was at work in his life and how God is now speaking to you and me through our lives.

So let me first give you some of my thoughts about today’s biblical texts that focus upon the baptism of Jesus.  And then I would like to see what these insights might be saying to us about our own lives and times, ok?

Insights
Now remember that we’re being asked to consider these stories
through the unique lens of Epiphany.  Each of the liturgical turning points in our tradition offers us slightly different ways of listening to our lives and seeing a portion of God’s grace in action. 

+  Advent, for example, gives us permission to honor our deepest longings as we hear the stories of Christ’s coming.  We all ache and hurt, we all know doubt and fear; Advent asks us not to bury our longings but turn them into prayers in anticipation of Christ’s coming in grace.

+  Christmas is a different turning point:  here we celebrate God’s presence with us in our flesh – it is a feast of grace – a blessing shared with us that we can never earn or purchase or even fully comprehend.  It is an invitation to live with gratitude.

+  And now we’re in the season of Epiphany where we look for signs of God’s light in the most unexpected places – like a peasant infant in a stable – like a Messiah come to bring healing to the bruised and broken reeds of the world – like Jesus who embraces his calling to ministry by humbling accepting baptism.

I am coming to believe that one of the clues about living into the spirituality of Epiphany is to be found in all the upside-down images given to us in the stories of this season.  Take what the poet and prophet Isaiah says about the Lord:  a bruised reed he will not break.  Maybe you have seen a bruised reed by a pond or lake – its tip bent over – dangling down? The little child in me always wants to snap that part off and break the bruised reed.  Preacher Steve Godfrey says we have an almost irresistible urge to do this: we want to “snap it off… because it’s just not right to leave it dangling down… in fact, it feels so good to break off that bruised reed.” It seems like it is a part of human nature to want to break that thing and snap it off. (http://churchin the world .com /2014/01/05/a-bruised-reed-he-will-not-break/)

+  To which the prophet Isaiah says: it may be human nature, but God’s servant guided by the Spirit, a bruised reed he will NOT break; God’s servant, you see, comes for justice, for mercy, for healing, to open the eyes of the blind and release the captives from their bondage.

+  God’s servant is not a slave to childish urges: a bruised reed – a wounded soul – a person in pain will not be broken. Remember what Psalm 23 tells us about God’s servant? “He leads me beside still waters and restores my soul.”

That’s one of the upside down images we’re given at the start of Epiphany: a bruised reed he will NOT break. Two others take place during the baptism of Jesus where first the Lord embraces the identity of God’s humble servant by placing himself into John’s hands; and second where the skies open and God calls Christ the beloved. In order for this baptism to have taken place, both Jesus and John had to give up some old ways of thinking and become open to what God was actually saying to them in their lives. The way I get this story is that both Jesus and John had to choose to let God’s Spirit guide them rather than their own desires or the expectations and habits of their generation,

+  Jesus had to give up any sense that his ministry would be about power in the traditional understanding of that word. He would not be a Messiah with an army; he would become a servant who would not break a bruised reed.  He would literally place himself in John’s hands and experience the humility of going under the waters to show the world what the upside-down nature of living in his kingdom of peace and compassion looked like from the bottom up and from inside out.

+  John, too, had to “release his old way of seeing the world.”  The Baptizer spoke of Jesus as the “Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world… the thong of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie.”  In the gospel of John we’re told that the Baptist realized that he must decrease in order for Christ to increase and prosper. And yet in today’s story it is John who accepts the role reversal wherein the last shall become first as he baptizes Jesus.

The way I see it both Jesus and John listened to what God was saying to them in their lives and embraced God’s greater mind at this key turning point.  That’s what the word metanoia is all about. Often we translate it in a narrow way as repentance – and for many people repentance means to feel sorry about the bad things we have done in our lives.  Now, there’s nothing wrong with feeling sorry for the bad things we’ve done in our lives – we’ve all done them – and those feelings can be helpful. I think of the heartache and sadness I have caused some of my loved ones and the way that makes me feel – and those feeling push me towards better and more loving choices if I’m paying attention, yes?

+  But repentance is not limited to feeling badly about the way we have hurt others; as theologian Cynthia Bourgeault puts it:  the Greek word, metanoia, that we translate into English as repentance also means to go beyond the mind – to go into the larger mind – the higher or meta message of God’s kingdom of grace. 

+  She suggests that rather than emphasizing repentance as a scolding – change your bad ways sayeth the Lord – the deeper or higher wisdom of repentance should sound something like: “Look, look! The Lord is inviting us into a new way of seeing and living. Come into the larger vision and see how the unforced rhythms of grace do it.” 

That is what the second upside-down image of the heavens opening in this baptism story tells us for what does God say at the baptism of Jesus but: “You are my beloved?”  No scolding, no shaming, no fear or even judgment. Rather we are given a glimpse into the greater mind of the Lord who calls Jesus – and by extension you and me – the beloved. We are the cherished - the sacred and beautiful servants of God’s grace – who make mistakes and often sin, to be sure.  But who are not condemned, rather we are liberated by love. 

+  Do you recall that portion of scripture that some zealot always displays at a televised football game: John 3:16? It is a beautiful summary of the heart of our faith, but it is incomplete without the following verse in John 3:17.  Together they tell us:

For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, so that who so ever believeth in him shall not perish but have eternal life.  For God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but rather that the world might be made whole through him.

+  Are you with me so far?  All the images, symbols and actions involving this baptism are saturated in the upside-down blessing of God’s grace.  They are an invitation into a repentance that enlarges our vision and allies our hearts with God’s deepest truth.

In this light, the baptism of Jesus was clearly a turning point in his life.  It was a moment when he chose to commit himself to God’s greater vision of grace.  It was an act that expressed God’s deepest truth to the world: you are God’s beloved.  It symbolized how his ministry would reverse both habit and history through humility and compassion.  And it incarnated what it means for us to listen to our lives for the alphabet of God’s grace.

+  Jesus didn’t just wake up one day and jump into the Jordan with his cousin John, right? He spent years in reflection.  He fasted and prayed.  He listened and asked questions of his elders, too.

+  Remember the story of when Jesus was 12 years old?  His family had gone to Jerusalem to the Temple for the Feast of Passover.  And as they were returning home, Joseph and Mary discovered that Jesus wasn’t with the other young men.  In terror they returned to Jerusalem only to find the young Jesus sitting in a circle with the wise old men asking them questions.

+  This is yet another of those upside-down symbols – questions are not only acceptable – they are to be encouraged and expressed.  St. Thomas Aquinas used to say to the fundamentalists of his day:  If Jesus could ask questions and bring challenges to his tradition, why can’t we.

+  The story continues with Jesus going out to wander for 40 days and 40 nights in the wilderness.  It seems that wandering and wilderness are often part of what we must listen to as we bring faith and imagination into the listening of our lives.

+  And don’t forget the dark night of the soul where in anguish the Master cried out:  My God, my God why hast thou forsaken me? 

Through the lens of Epiphany, the whole story of Christ’s life can be about turning points – how he learned to listen for the word of the Lord in his life – and what that tells us about God’s metanoia and the unforced rhythms of grace.

Conclusion

So think out loud with me now about three broad categories of turning points that have some-thing to tell us about listening for the world of the Lord in our lives.  Over the years I have come to summarize them like this:  there are personal turning points, there are liturgical turning points and there are social/historical turning points. 

+  Liturgically, what season in the life of the church really energizes you?  Can you say why?  Are there parts of our spiritual seasons that make you uncomfortable?  What is that discomfort saying to you, do you think?

+  Have you had really sacred – or totally disastrous – holy days?  A Christmas that nourished your soul?  Or one that was agonizing and horrible?  Or have there been moments in your life that FELT like Christmas?  Or Good Friday?  See what I mean? 

That is one layer – the liturgical – and by paying attention you can listen for the word of the Lord in your life through what takes place in worship.  Another whole layer involves the social and historical realm.

+  Can you name a world event – or a force of nature – that changed the course of your life for good or ill?

+  Wars have been turning points for many – has that been true for you?  What about politics – have you been touched or changed by the political life of our nation?

+  Some people have been changed forever by travel – is that true for you? What other social and historical turning points have made a difference in your life?

And then there are the personal turning points – love, death, birth, rites of passage – times of great grief or moments of profound joy – education – art – music:  all of these personal encounters can impact us and change us forever.

+  Anyone care to share how a personal turning point has made a difference in your life?

+  Do you have a sense how listening to these moments of your lives is a way of discerning God’s voice to you in the most intimate way?  How is it part of the alphabet of grace?

Buechner once told the story of a great theologian who was lecturing at a university about miracles.  And when he was asked to give a specific example he turned and said: “There is only one miracle… and that is life.”  Are you listening to it?

Have you wept at anything during this past year? Has your heart beat faster because of beauty? Have you thought seriously about the fact that someday you are going to die? More often than not do you really listen when people are speaking to you instead of waiting for your turn to speak? Is there anybody you know in whose place, if one of you had to suffer great pain, you would volunteer yourself?  If your answer to all – or most of these – questions in NO, the chances are that you are already dead.


One of the blessings of the spirituality of Epiphany is that we are invited, encouraged, poked, prodded, pulled and challenged to listen to where life and light is breaking into our lives – and then cherish it.  The very moment Jesus came up out of the baptismal waters, the skies opened up and he saw God’s Spirit—it looked like a dove descending and landing upon him – and as the Spirit became flesh, he heard a voice: “This is my beloved, chosen and marked by my love, to be the delight of my life.” And what was true then, is true today for those with ears to hear.
credits:
1) Daniel Bonnell @ one-hand-clapping.blogspot.com
3) Laurie Justus Pace @ www.dailypainters.com
4) Chris Cook, Jesus after Baptism, @ www.chriscookartist.com
5) Bearden, The Dove @ nonsite.org
6) Bearden, Baptism @ www.courses.psu.edu

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