Sunday, January 20, 2013

Looking for God's Glory

A sermon for the Second Sunday after Epiphany, January 20, 2013.  The lectionary readings are Isaiah 62:1-5, Psalm 36:5-10, 1 Corinthians 12:1-11, and John 2:1-11.

In Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famous last speech, he ended it by saying he wasn’t worried.  He was happy, he wasn’t afraid of anybody.  “Mine eyes have seen the glory,” he said.  “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!”

He was quoting a hymn, of course, the hymn some of us know as “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”  Both he was doing more than simply quoting a hymn, since its tune and its words had strong, powerful associations with them.  The tune was a folk tune, from an old spiritual especially loved and sung by African American soldiers in the Union Army during the Civil War.  There were a number of different words to the song, and the soldiers would change them, depending on the context and the audience.  Whichever words were used, no matter the context, when other African Americans and people yearning for freedom heard the tune, they recognized it as a freedom song, and heard notes for a new day. 

That tradition continued, but in 1861, Julia Ward Howe visited Washington and met Abraham Lincoln.  Based on that trip and on her own passion for peace, abolition, and women’s suffrage, Howe wrote new words to the tune, making the hymn that is familiar to many today.  Whether it was the songs sung by soldiers, or Howe’s words, or words used since, the refrain is the same:  “Glory, glory, hallelujah.“

Glory becomes a prayer.  There’s an urgency to it, like a fight song for a victory you can almost taste, for wanting it so bad.  But in that same cry for glory there’s also a sense of already having tasted a bit of what is to come.  As Dr. King said, he’d been to the mountaintop and looked over.  His faith told him what was possible.  His faith helped him see what was inevitable, and the idea of “glory” helped get him there. 

If we notice, a the of glory goes right through our worship, like a great chorus singing underneath everything else we do or say. We join that chorus when we echo the Christmas angels in our opening song of praise, “Glory be to God on high.” Later in the Eucharist sing along with Isaiah and the whole heavenly host, again singing, “Heaven and earth are full of your glory.”  

But what is the “glory” of God?  What do we mean?  What are we singing about?

Today’s Gospel gives us a hint.  There, in the midst of a crowd, in the midst of a huge party, a wedding with lots of in-laws, and probably a few out-laws and wedding-crashers, there is Jesus.  Jesus is there and also his mother, Mary.  A crisis occurs when it appears there’s no more wine. So Mary urges Jesus to do something.  Though he seems almost to talk back to her (the interchange sounds more abrupt in English than intended) Jesus does it.  He acts.  He goes through with what John the Evangelist describes as the first of his “signs.”  And then John puts all of this into context. 

Repurposing the jars that were set aside for Jewish purification rites, turning water into wine, putting marriage in the context of a communal relation--- all of this works together as a sign “that reveals his glory.” It reveals not only Christ’s glory, but the glory of God.   

The glory of God shimmers at the edges of perception. At first glance, looking dead-on at a situation, things seem to be one way.  In the Gospel, the problem is clear: there’s no more wine.  But the Virgin Mary can see that just at the edge of things, a little to the side, something is ready to break in, and that something is not of this world—it’s beyond the ordinary, beyond our hoping, beyond our imagining.  It’s something that comes from a place of faith in “what can be.”  What ought to be.  What might be.
In our first reading from Isaiah, the prophet tells the people of Judah about God’s work of restoration and renewal.  They’re going to be called by a new name, a name already known by God.  No longer forsaken, but beautiful.  No longer desolate, but delightful.  And yet, the people of Judah just aren’t there yet.  They can’t hear Isaiah.  They can’t see the possibilities because they’re stuck in fear and funk.  They’re stuck in their own sadness and the daily grind of their situation. They only see clouds, while the whole time, Isaiah knows the sun is about to break through.

St. Paul talks about glory too, in his Letter to the Corinthians. Paul sees God’s glory in what first appears to be those mundane, ordinary, petty differences between people—those same differences that make us individuals, but also sometimes annoy and bother. But Paul sees these as opportunities for God’s glory to go to work—in the grace of God, with the eyes of faith, the particular characteristics of each one of us are taken up by God’s glory and transformed into spiritual gifts.  God’s glory takes babble and makes it eloquence.  God’s glory takes miserliness and makes it good stewardship.  God’s glory takes water and turns it into wine.

In the Gospel, it’s Mary who first point to glory.  She sees it in Jesus, but it’s that same glimmer she must have seen when Gabriel first hovered overhead.  She saw it in the humble love of Joseph, who believed not only the angel, but also believed Mary.  She saw glory shine in the faces of Anna and Simeon as they held the Christ.   Mary saw glory at Cana, and she would see it again on Calvary: the glory of God to become more than we might otherwise.  The glory of God that enables us to become more loving, more giving, more believing. 

Isaiah, John the Evangelist, Mary the Mother of God, and Martin Luther King, Jr. are all saying a similar thing:  They’re saying, “don’t get stuck looking down.  Don’t get stuck looking at yourself.  Don’t get stuck counting the cards you’ve been dealt.  There’s more…. Look for the glory and live into it.”

Mary shows us how to spot it.  She says to the servants, the waiters, the stewards…  She says, “Do whatever he tells you.”  Look to Jesus and follow him, wherever that takes you.   

Gerard Manley Hopkins saw God’s glory in “dappled things,” in the multitude of God’s making:  in trout and fire-coals, in farmlands and trades.  He sees God’s glory in

All things counter, original, spare, strange; 
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)   
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:  Praise him.

God’s glory comes to us so that it might reverberate, spread out, and return to God in an ongoing energy of praise and love. 
But sometimes, in our lives, we can’t see God’s glory in the dappled things or in much of anything.   And yet, it’s there, in potential and possibility.
For the scientist, it might come at that point of refusing to settle for the same old way of doing things, for the given answer and the obvious solution—and so you say a prayer and look for God’s glory to help. 

For the businessperson it might come with risk—not the kind of risk to make more simply for the sake of more, but a risk on an entrepreneur, a start-up, an investment that stands a chance of overflowing into social good—so you make your move, say a prayer, and allow God’s glory to do its work. 

Wherever you may be stuck—whether in a relationship, a habit, an outlook ,… whether you’re looking for a job or stuck in the one you have, we can all of us follow the Virgin Mary’s lead—look to Christ and follow him.  Do what he tells us.  Do the next right thing in faith, and let God’s glory move and make, love and live. 

Martin Luther King, Jr. said his eyes had seen the glory of the Lord.  But it was more than that—he saw, and pointed to, and lived into God’s glory with his whole being.  On this weekend of celebrations and beginnings, may we allow God to use everything we’ve got-- our eyes, our mouths, our hearts and hands—everything we are, have been, and may be—to perceive and point to God’s ever-unfolding glory, glory that moves us over the mountaintop, that frees, and that saves into eternal life.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.  Amen.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

The Inauguration of Faith

A sermon for the First Sunday after Epiphany: The Baptism of Our Lord Jesus Christ, January 13, 2013.  The lectionary readings are Isaiah 43:1-7Psalm 29, Acts 8:14-17, and  Luke 3:15-17, 21-22.

Right now, downtown, bands are playing, oaths are being said, and over-caffeinated members of the Presidential Inaugural Committee are desperately trying to manage one another as they rehearse next week’s Inauguration.  The official inauguration stores are open, and red, white and blue bunting is appearing all over.  

An inauguration, of any kind, even if it’s the second, is the official beginning.  Certain people are present. Formalities are followed. Tradition carries the day even as there is some newer, contemporary aspect included.

The idea of “inauguration” is rooted in the classical world, especially in ancient Rome whenever there were official state functions and augurs were present.  The augurs were priests, or soothsayers, or official diviners who read the future or the signs of the times, often by watching the flight of the birds.  They could, in that way, tell what “augured” well for the future.  Any official beginning in the Roman state included the augurs in attendance.  An inauguration, then as now, meant a mixture of tradition and pageantry, stateliness and hope, hope that the birds were telling the truth and hope that the gods were on the side of the new leader. 

The spirit of the inauguration outdoors coincides with a spirit of inauguration indoors (at church) as we celebrate the Baptism of Our Lord Jesus Christ.  At Christmas we celebrated the birth of a baby, the child of God who is God-in-the-flesh, Emmanuel, God-among-us and God with-us.  On Epiphany we proclaimed that this God of life is not only God-for-us, but God-for-all. 

And today, we remember the baptism of Jesus and our own baptism.  We remember how Jesus was baptized by John, not so much because Jesus needed to be made holy through baptism, but because, through baptism, Jesus is able to make us holy.  And we recall our own baptism, our own inauguration as Christians. 

But to remember our baptism is not just to play-act, or dig out old pictures, if we have them.  It’s not even just to light a baptismal candle, if we still have ours, it is to touch base with our baptism and allow that through our baptism, God saved us.  God saves us still, and God will always save us. 

The water that runs through us is water of redemption, water that has saved us.  Isaiah reminds people that it was the water made holy that saved them in crossing over from Egypt. And so, the water that saves us at baptism is connected to the water that saved the people of Israel.  It’s connected because God is in the middle of it all. 

The psalm reminds us of water’s power in creation—the power to create and refresh, but also the power to destroy and wash away.  “The voice of the Lord is upon the waters, the God of glory thunders.”  It breaks cedar trees.  It splits the flames of fire.  It strips the forest bare.  But it also gives strength to God’s people.  The voice of the Lord that moves upon the water gives us a blessing of peace.

It’s that blessing of peace and strength that the apostles are so eager to share in the reading from Acts.  As soon as Peter and John hear that people in Samaria are interested in the word of God, they go to visit.  They go to lay hands on them, to pray over them, and to share the Holy Spirit with them.  They go, in a sense, to play in the water with these new friends—to join in their new-found faith, and to teach their new friends how to swim in the deep water, to be baptized not only in the name of Jesus, but also with the power of the Holy Spirit—the Spirit that moves in community, that flies when spirit meets spirit, that grows whenever faith is shared.

If we were to think of baptism as jumping into the water, then we should view it NOT as one of those amazing divers who jumps from a high place, soars through the air downward, and cuts through the water in silence, without even so much as a ripple.  Instead, baptism is like going in “cannonball style.”  It’s about making a splash, about God’s displacing and disrupting the matter of the universe.  It’s about jumping in, making a difference, and sharing the water. 

In baptism we do jump in. Baptism is a change, it is a moving forward, a leaving behind. At the baptism of Jesus, God says, “You are my child, my Beloved, with you I am well pleased.”  God says the same thing to each one of us at our baptism.  It’s our inauguration, our commissioning, our call to action on behalf of Christ.  We don’t need the augurs to read the flight of the birds.  We have the symbolic wings of the dove of the Holy Spirit to show us the way forward.  We’re called to get wet, to get involved, and to allow the power of God to have its effect upon us. Saint Paul understands baptism as dying and rising again.

He says, “We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.” (Romans 6). We will not go from life to death and to new life without some effect, and at the very least, we will be getting wet.

In baptism we also make a difference. Like a stone that’s thrown into water and makes a ripple effect, the effect of our baptism will ripple throughout our lives and into the lives of others. It will naturally spill over. If you ever watch a group of kids at a swimming pool, you’ll notice that as soon as an adult looks away, the action becomes about who can make the biggest splash, the most dramatic jump into the water. Who can displace the most water? It’s all about being seen, about making one’s mark, about standing out. As Christians, we could use a little more of this childish instinct. Being baptized marks us as belonging to Christ—it makes us different, different in the way we make decisions, in the way we spend money, in the way we treat other people. As the children in the swimming pool know, there’s a big difference between splashing water in someone else’s face and in simply making a big splash oneself. We also know that difference and as Christians are called to be respectful to those of other faith or no faith, but it still make a splash with our own faith.

We get wet, we make a splash, and finally, our baptism carries with it the command as well as the courtesy of sharing water to others.  Every week there are some from this parish who participate in volunteer ministries around the city.  Some literally share water, and tea, and food.  Others sit on boards, help with fundraising, or haul food from one place to another.  In just a few weeks, our Endowment Board will meet to review applications for mission grants, grants that have enabled us to further the prayers we say and make them more tangible for people in need—for victims of the storm in New York and New Jersey, for tornado victims in the south, and for people in Honduras, South Africa, the Middle East, and elsewhere.   In the streets of this city, in the farthest corners of the globe, many of you share your spirit and the spirit of Christ in you, as you work and travel and do research and offer guidance-- you give of yourselves for the bettering of God’s creation.  In sharing the OUR spirit, having been baptized with water and the spirit, we water to others.

The folks downtown are probably about finished with their rehearsal and next week will be the real thing.  As our country gets ready to celebrate the inauguration of a new presidential term, there are hopes and there are worries.  But as we watch the inauguration of one person and a new leadership, we also have the chance to re-commit ourselves to our individual and collective callings as people living in this particular country.  In a similar way, on this day the church calls the Baptism of Our Lord Jesus Christ, though we (ourselves) are not baptized again, we reaffirm our own baptismal covenant.  We re-commit ourselves. May the Spirit refresh us, commission us to do faithful ministry in the new year, and fill us with the very power of God. 

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.  Amen.


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