Sacramental Illumination

A Sermon for Epiphany2; Isaiah 62:1-5, Psalm 36:5-10, 1 Corinthians 12:1-11, John 2:1-11

In Mission Impossible Fallout a terrorist organization steals plutonium cores and plans to use them to wreak havoc. The hunt (pardon the pun) is on; agents are searching major cities all over the world. They are surprised when the terrorists are located high in the Himalayas. Julia, Hunt’s partner, realizes nuclear explosions here would contaminate water for as much as half of the world’s population. It’s an interesting thought that the loss of water, after all, we have so much of it, could be a major crisis. And then I read an article in the New York Times about the Tuyuksu glacier which supplies water to 2 million people. It has shrunk by miles, and a water shortage likely in the next 20 years. When you look at all Central Asia, the Tibetan Plateau, Himalayan, and Karakoram shrinking glaciers are the source of water for millions. It may not be a nuclear blast. but changing weather patterns are threatening the lives of millions and millions (Ruby and O’Neil).

In our Gospel readings for the last two weeks, water is significant. Last week Jesus is baptized (Luke3:15) in the waters of the Jordan River (Matthew 3:11). This morning Jesus turns water, reserved for rites of purification, into excellent wine. One aspect of this miracle is its Eucharistic, and sacramental, overtones (O’Day). By an act of the divine muse, this connected to a phrase from today’s collect illumined by your Word and Sacraments. I got to thinking about sacrament as illumination.

You recall that a sacrament

 is an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace (BCP 857).

Pondering all Jesus’ miracles, you might notice a common trait, they all involve something extraordinary happening, something that is unbelievably beyond human possibility, something spiritual. Grace is defined as

God’s favor, undeserved, unearned, by which our sins are forgiven, our hearts stirred, and wills strengthened (BCP 858).

Grace, in part, is a sort of spiritual mitochondria. Mitochondria are the parts of cells that produce the energy they use, sort of little power plants. Grace is, in part, a spiritual power plant, that enables us to do those things that are beyond our human abilities.

Certainly, the transformation of water into wine is beyond human ability, so, by grace empowered spiritual action Jesus transforms water into wine. However, we get to easily distracted by the transformation; much more is going on here. The water was set aside for purification. In the Bible, purification rites are how an unclean person is restored to the enjoyment of religious privileges, and daily life. (Easton). It can be as simple as washing hands and goes from there. Our practice of baptism in part is developed from this concept (Sakenfeld). It is what John is referring to last week when he tells the crowd I baptize you with water (Luke 3:17). Another connection in this morning’s story is the revelation of Jesus as a presence of divine glory (Gaventa and Petersen).

When Jesus’s mother tells him about the wine crisis his response is What concern is that to me? It’s a good question, he isn’t the host (The Living Church). Jesus is a guest, and guests are supposed to bring food and wine as a sign of their support for the marriage, a shortage could be a sign of a lack of community support for the groom and bride (Trozzo). It was also customary to invite as many as people as possible to a wedding feast. To run short of wine would be a major hospitality blunder, shaming the whole family (Keener and Walton). In Jesus’ day water was not safe to drink, wine was the usual and customary drink, so, the lack of wine could be a public health issue (Trozzo). Beyond all these kinds of reasons there is scripture; Psalm 104:14 reads

You make grass grow for flock and herds and plants to serve mankind; that they may bring forth food from the earth, and wine to gladden our hearts (The Living Church).

One of God’s attributes is bringing wine to gladden our hearts. In Proverbs and Hosea, the abundance of wine is an eschatological (end of time) image, of restoration (Trozzo). Biblical marriage ceremonies are also symbolic of the last days and the celebration of God’s future reign (Gaventa and Petersen). One final bit, when needs are met even commonplace needs like the one in Cana that day somehow joy follows, and that joy flows from the revelation of the glory of God (Hoezee). Which may be the point, the wine problem is a concern for Jesus, because in meeting the need of an everyday event, like the wedding feast, God’s Glory is revealed.

So, how does all this connect to sacraments? You know there are two great sacraments; Baptism and Eucharist, and several other sacraments: confirmation, ordination, marriage, reconciliation of a penitent (better known as confession) and unction (anointing of the sick) (BCP 860). The Catechism goes on to say

God is not limited to our rites, they are patterns of countless ways by which God uses material things to reach out to us (BCP 861).

So, any time we are confronted with someone else’s problem, there is the opportunity for us to follow Jesus example and meet a common need, and in doing so reveal the presence and glory of God. And when the challenge is beyond our human abilities we can rely on the mitochondrial energy of grace, to empower such a spiritual sign. Any time the presence and glory of God are revealed is a time of illumination, spiritual illumination.

Last week I read of a bus driver being called a hero because she saw a 2-year-old in a diaper and onesie walking into the street, she stopped her bus, got out, picked up the child and carried it to safety. This is a moment as full of grace as Jesus’ transformation of water to wine, it is an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace, it is a spiritual illumination, revealing the presence of God. I believe such moments are present to us all the time; we just don’t see them as such, because we have limited our understanding of ‘the ever-present’ to time excluding geography; yes, grace is present all the time, and ~ grace is also anywhere and everywhere.

May this season of Epiphany, this season of light, this season of illumination, reveal the opportunities for it to be your concern, to draw on the power of grace, meeting a common need, revealing the glory and presence of God, in a sacramental illumination moment.


References

Easton, Matthew George. Easton’s Illustrated Bible Dictionary. WORDsearch Corp., 2008.

Epperly, Bruce. The Adventurous Lectionary. 20 1 2019. <http://www.patheos.com/blogs/livingaholyadventure/author/bruceepperly&gt;.

Gaventa, Beverly Roberts and David Petersen. New Interpreter’s One-Volume Commentary. Nashville, n.d.

Harrelson, Walter J. The New Interpreters’ Study Bible. Abingdon Press, 2003. E-book.

Hoezee, Scott. The Lectionary Gospel John 2:1-11. 20 1 2019.

Keener, Craig and John Walton. NKJV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible Notes. Nashville: Zondervan, 2017.

O’Day, Dail R. New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary The Gospel of John. Vol. VIII. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2015. XII vols. App Olivetree.

Richter, Amy. “The Frist Sign Epiphany 2.” 20 1 2019. Sermons that Work.

Ruby, Matt and Claire O’Neil. “Glaciers Are Retreating. Millions Rely on Their Water.” New York Times (2019). <https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/01/15/climate/melting-glaciers-globally.html&gt;.

Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob. New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Nashville: Abingdon, 2009.

The Episcopal Church. The Book of Common Prayer. New York: Church Publishing, 1979.

The Living Church. “Many Gifts and the One Gift of Joy.” 20 1 2019. livingchurch.org. <livingchurch.org/2018/08/22/freedom-and-popular-culture>.

Trozzo, Lindsey. Commentary on John 2:1-11. 20 1 2019. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/&gt;.

 

 

Purpose, Light, and Life

A sermon for 1st Sunday in Epiphany; Genesis 1:1-5, Psalm 29, Acts 19:1-7, Mark 1:4-11

 

As I was driving home from a meeting in Osceola Friday afternoon, I heard a story on NPR about a granddaughter tracing her grandmother’s experience as a Jewish refugee in Norway and then Sweden in WWII. Her grandmother was smuggled from the threat of Nazi prison camp, where she would have most likely met the same fate as her parents and younger brother, to safety with strangers who welcomed her into their family, twice.

Though more dramatic, it touches the same moral chords as David Brook’s Thursday column How would Jesus Drive? Brooks begins with Pope Francis’ New Year’s Eve homily in which he states that the most influential people, the true artisans of the common good are everyday folks. Brook’s notes

  • how speeding up so I can’t merge into your lane, reveals a society that is basically competitive, not cooperative
  • a friendly wave after I let you in reveals a place where a kindness is recognized, and gratitude is expressed.
  • getting over to the right lane and waiting your turn in a crowded highway exit lane, rather than cutting in at the last moment, reveals a sense of fairness and equality.

He is wise and accurate in the observation that driving requires us to make thousands of small moral decisions. He ponders “How would Jesus drive?” (Brooks).

The granddaughter’s story is centered around large, perhaps dramatic, moral decisions. Brooks’ column is centered around moral decision so small most of us don’t recognize their moral importance. Both connected with Mark’s 59-word story of Jesus’ baptism; and its themes of water, torn apart, and a dove. Let’s Explore.

The dove, as a symbol of the Spirit appearing as Jesus emerges from Jordan’s waters, reminds us of the chaotic waters of creation. Their time in Egypt would have exposed Israel to the idea of water as a place without role or function (Genesis 1:2) The ‘deep’ is a watery abyss God pushes to edge of the cosmos and holds there, as a part of God’s creating order out of chaos, has similarities with Babylon’s creation epic Enuma Elish (Keener and Walton; Harrelson). Genesis’ imagery of darkness contributes to the sense of the water’s threat. From Genesis we imagine the water as the useless formless void of chaos, in which nothing can exist, from which the Word, the light and life of creation, the incarnate Jesus, the Son of God, emerges (Pankey). It looks a very different than the safe, still surface of the water in baptismal fonts.

Jesus sees the heaven being torn apart. The is not a careful tearing easily restored. The image reminds us of the gigantic power of creation separating day from night, and form, and use from void (Pankey). It is an apocalyptic vision suggesting that a divine revelation is at hand (Keener and Walton; Gaventa and Petersen) It is not like God is tearing it all down to begin again; it suggests that God is acting to set the cosmos back on its intended track (Hoezee). Its purpose, form, and order is as powerfully disturbing as the water’s useless formless void of chaos. We are not at all sure that the shredding of the barrier between heaven and earth is a good thing, because we know it is going to disrupt how our thousands of daily moral decisions are made and seen.

It is clear that Jesus’ baptism is not a purification ceremony. Ancient biographical writings expect the hero to prepared for his mission (Perkins). Barrie Bates writes It’s as if the waters of his baptism have washed away what was hiding the true Jesus (Bates). The revelation of the divine mission, the preparation for the mission, the clearing away of anything hiding the divine appointee’s identity directs our attention to the phrase “like a dove” which is sounding more and more like Jesus coming to know who he is, and what his calling is (Perkins).

All of this helps us to understand who Mark understands Jesus to be. But, we do not get off untouched. God calls Jesus “Son of God.” In Psalm 2 (vs 7) and Isaiah 44(2) the title refers to the whole people of Israel (Perkins). So, we find ourselves challenged; what do we need to do to wash away the buildup of life’s troubles and discover who we really are, and what God’s call for us is. We are baptized in Jesus and “marked as Christ’s own forever.” So, each and every one of us is the beloved, with whom God is well pleased; each and every one of us was forever transformed in our baptism each; and every one of us continues to be transformed, sometimes in big ways and sometimes in small changes (Bates).

We all know that there is still darkness, chaos, disfunction, and purposelessness in the world (Pankey). When I left the story of the granddaughter’s pursuit of her grandmother’s story I was wondering “Why do some people fade away in the face of chaos or evil? Why do some people take a courageous stand, and / or take courageous action?” The answer is clear. God’s love brings all things into purpose, light, and life. It is as Brooks shares, Pope Francis saying, the most influential people, the true artisans of the common good are everyday folks (Brooks). That influence, our influence is the strength that comes from the presence of God/Jesus/Spirit given us at Baptism. It is the same strength with which God chased off and holds back the chaos of darkness and water creating the space in which the cosmos, including us, can be, and prosper. It is the same strength that tore open the heavens revealing divine love for Jesus, enabling Jesus to thrive in the chaos of the wilderness – which is the very next story in Mark’s Gospel. It is the same strength that it is available to all who know and accept God/Jesus/Spirit. It is the influence of everyday folks making thousands of moral decisions every day guided by their divine calling to bring purpose, light, and life into every situation.

In this story the dove personifies the Spirit. In the flood story (Genesis 8:6-12) the dove is a symbol for a new creation and a new hope (Harrelson). Jesus drives to fulfill that hope by bringing purpose, light, and life to all people. We can too, as we drive around to all the everyday purposes of a full life.


References

Bates, Barrie. “Christ’s Own for Ever, Epiphany 1 (B).” 7 1 2018. Sermons that Work.

Brooks, David. How Would Jesus Drive? 4 1 2018. <http://nyti.ms/28KGh5f&gt;.

Epperly, Bruce. The Adventurous Lectionary. 7 1 2018. <http://www.patheos.com/blogs/livingaholyadventure/author/bruceepperly&gt;.

Gaventa, Beverly Roberts and David Petersen. New Interpreter’s One Volume Commentary. Nashville, n.d.

Harrelson, Walter J. The New Interpreters’ Study Bible. Abingdon Press, 2003. E-book.

Hoezee, Scott. Epiphany 1B Mark 1:4-11. 7 1 2018. <http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/advent-3c/?type=the_lectionary_gospel&gt;.

Keener, Craig and John Walton. NKJV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible Notes. Nashville: Zondervan, 2017.

Kittredge, Cynthia Briggs. Commentary on Mark 1:4-11. 7 1 2018. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/&gt;.

Pankey, Steve. “The chaos of baptism.” 3 1 2017. Draughting Theology.

Perkins, Pheme. New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary The Gospel of Mark. Ed. Leander E. Keck (NIBC) Bel and the Dragon. Vol. VII. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2015. XII vols.

Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob. New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Nashville: Abingdon, 2009.

The Living Curch. 1/7: Risk and Trust. 7 1 2018. <livingchurch.org/2018/1/7/1/7 Risk and Trust>.

 

 

 

The imperceptible helping presence of God

A sermon for Proper 21

Exodus 17:1-7, Psalm 78:1-4, 12-16, Philippians 2:1-13, Matthew 21:23-32

So last week it was some two and a half months into their wilderness journey when the Israelites began to complain about the lack of breakfast and dinner. This morning, well we don’t know how long it’s been. I looked at a map that marks the Exodus journey, and it’s near as far from Sin to Rephidim, as it is from the sea to Sin. That wasn’t much help, because we really don’t know where Rephidim nor Sin actually are. We do know Horeb and Sinai are the same place. The Bible tells us that in chapter 19 they get to Saini, so if they don’t get to Sanai until then, how do they draw water at Horeb/Saini in chapter 17, as we read today? Cartographers are scratching their heads. Theologians remind us “Hey – Horeb means mountain of God.” (Hoezee) essentially: this is where God is. And since Israel is asking “Is God with us or not?” let’s not worry about there where of this mystery, let’s learn from what’s happening.

For the third time since their departure Israel faces extreme thirst hunger (Ex 16:1) or thirst (Ex 15:25). Before they complained. Today they quarrel. Quarreling does more than raise the emotional level. The root of ‘quarrel’ is a legal dispute. (Portier-Young) (Harrelson) Walter Brueggmann notes “Israel isn’t complaining about being thirsty, they are demanding proof that God is present.” He writes:

The only evidence of Yahweh’s presence that Israel will accept is concrete action that saves. Thus Israel collapses God’s promise into its own well-being and refuses to allow Yahweh any life apart from Israel’s well-being. (Brueggemann)

Terence Fretheim notes, they are seeking a way to coerce God to act, (Fretheim) much like Satan is tempting Jesus on the pinnacle of the temple to goad God to act. (Brueggemann)

We all know Jesus tells Satan “… it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” (Mat 4:5ff) So we know testing God is a dangerous idea. But the real danger here, is perverting the relationship with God. Israel has essentially tried to place God at their beck and call. Moses isn’t really much better. Yes he turns to God, but not to seek help for Israel; he’s asking God to save his skin. (Brueggemann)

This behavior leads to two sorts of unfaithful and dangerous behaviors. The first is to not take reasonable precautions, like wearing seat belts, while proudly proclaiming “God is my protection.” The second, and in my experience, is more prevalent, leads people to think, and say “God did not heal me/you because I/you don’t have enough faith.” (Fretheim) I don’t know about you, I’ve heard both. Both are flat out corruption that reduces faith to utilitarianism, (Brueggemann) a philosophy that seeks the good for the most, of greater concern,  its focus is consequences, not inherent value or motives; (merriam-webster.com utilitarianism) and consequently ignores those frequent times when our way, our desire is not God’s way nor God’s desire. In many respects it reduces God to a product that commercials do their best to convince you will not only solve your immediate problem, but subliminally suggest it will transform your life beyond your imagination. (Ashley) (Brueggemann)

Now we all know stories of floods (Gen 7) and fire (Gen 19) and pillars of salt (Gen 19:26) and plagues (Ex 7) and the wrath of God. So we might be taken back a bit by God’s response. There is no wrath, no scolding, not even a moment of “Now listen here …,” ~ there is none of that. (Hoezee) God tells Moses, “Get your staff, take some leaders; go to the rock at Horeb. I will be there; strike the rock and water will come out of it so the people may drink.” That’s it; ~ and not.

Moses used that very same staff, to make the waters of Nile undrinkable (Ex. 7:17). Once again, Moses is God’s manifestation of a divine extension of creation. In turning the Nile red with blood, in holding back and returning the waters of the sea, God, through Moses, demonstrates divine creative activity. Here a creative act provides Israel with water; and as water is essential to life, it’s also another gift of life.  (Petersen and Beverly Roberts Gaventa) (Fretheim) That water is under rock formations in the area does not negate God’s hand at work. Once again God is working through the natural and through the human (this time Moses) to provide blessings, and to give life to God’s people.

We are in the midst of our own wilderness trek. Though we are not likely to run out of water, indeed if you ask the road engineers we’ve an overabundance of the stuff, but, we have faced experiences that give rise to the questions “Is God here?” or “Has God abandoned us?” As God is imperceptibly standing in front of Israel at Horeb, God is imperceptibly here. God did not abandon Israel in the Sin dessert, God has not and will not abandon us here. That is not to say that God will grant us every wish. 1. Not every wish we desire is life giving, and 2. God’s ways and timings are not ours. So, while it is desirable to express our concerns to God, it is also desirable that we seek God’s reply and presence, which, by this morning’s story, is likely to be discerned in nature and/or in/or by family, friend, or stranger. And when we experience the presence of God, it’s our calling, actually a requirement of our baptism, to share it; in reality to seek and share it. (BCP 304)

When a community or a church has questions of God’s presence, when a church seeks God’s voice, God’s guidance, it’s the work of all the leaders, of all the people. Not all the work is the same, nonetheless, everyone is a part of: the questioning, the seeking, and the discerning process. It’s hard work. I’m not so sure ours is as hard as Israel’s trek across the desert, at least it’s not as physically challenging. I am sure we are not alone. I want to go back to our Baptismal Covenant. Not the proclamation of faith, which is critical, not the praxis vows, which are equally important, but to the response we make as each vow is presented: “I will, with God’s help.”

So, by the circumstance of numbers we find ourselves called to discern a new or different way of being Church, in the Episcopal tradition in the Delta in the 21st century. It’s not a rite of the church but rather a necessity of the church. We might hear the calling “Will you seek a way to be the church right here, right now?” In my heart I know our reply “We will, with God’s help.” Amen.


Works Cited

n.d. <http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary&gt;.

Ashley, Rev. Dana’e. Sermons that Work. 28 9 2014.

Brueggemann, Walter. The New Intrepreter’s Bible. Ed. Leander E Keck. Vol. Exodus. Abbingdon Press, 2003.

Fretheim, Terence E. Interpretation A BIBLE COMMENTARY FOR TEACHING AND PREACHING. Ed. Patrick D Miller, Jr. and Paul J. Achtemeier. Vol. Exodus. Louisville: John Knox Press, 1991.

Harrelson, Walter J. The New Interpreters’ Study Bible. Abingdon Press, 2003. E-book.

Hoezee, Scott. Old Testament Lectionary Text is: Exodus 3:1-15. 28 9 2014. <http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/thisWeek/index.php&gt;.

Petersen, David and Beverly Roberts Gaventa. New Interpreters’ Bible, One Volume Commentary. Nashville TN: Abbingdon Press, 2010. ebook.

Portier-Young, Anathea. “Commentary on Exodus 17:1-7.” 28 9 2014. workingpreacher.org. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2136&gt;.