January 08, 2017
Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations.
Peter began to speak to them: “I truly understand that God shows no partiality.”
Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
Good morning, St. Patrick’s; thank you for your warm welcome. I feel very much at home at St Patrick’s, and I’m here a lot, thanks to your generous hospitality in hosting diocesan and community events. I give thanks for the leadership and friendship of your rector, Kurt Gerhard. You’re blessed with a gifted staff and strong lay leaders who serve here, in St Patrick’s school, and beyond, all within the context of demanding lives and vocations. Thank you for all that you are and offer as a Christian community.
So here we are, at the start of a new year and the beginning of a new era in our country. In the midst of the world’s uncertainties and our own personal challenges, of all we do not understand and cannot control, all that we fear and dare to hope for, here in church we enter the season of Epiphany. Epiphany is my favorite liturgical season and one that could not be more timely for us now, for reasons I hope to make clear.
Broadly speaking, the word “epiphany” describes the experience of being surprised by a sudden insight that brings clarity to something that we’ve been struggling with or previously could not understand. An epiphany is something revealed or clarified, so important that it can turn your life around. It’s a new lens given us, through which we can see, if only for a moment, as God sees.
I love Epiphany because there are few things more precious to me than clarity--when I can see the way ahead, or know what to do, or have sufficient light to take even one step forward with confidence. As bishop, I feel a particular responsibility to lead with as much clarity as I can. Yet clarity does not come easily for me; it never has. It involves a lot of internal struggle, pages and pages of notes that I eventually throw away; conversations with a lot of people, including several in this room; and then, on blessed occasions--all the sweeter for the struggle that preceded it--an experience of illumination. I continue to be humbled by the process of seeking and receiving clarity, and the mystery of it, for it requires such effort and yet it always feels like a gift when it comes. So while I love stories like the one of Jesus rising up from the water, seeing a dove and hearing the voice of God, clarifying for him his core identity and vocation in life, I have no illusions that such moments come without considerable struggle.
The season of Epiphany, which follows Christmas, focuses on the revelation of Jesus—who he is, what his life discloses about the nature of God, and where we might find him now, should we be inclined to look. The Scripture readings in Epiphany are among the most beautiful in the Bible, the best passages you could hope for if you wanted to deepen your understanding of the Christian faith or open yourself to the experience at the heart of Christianity, or to renew that experience if your faith has gone dry. That experience, as best I can describe it, is one of encounter; of being met, embraced, even, by a mercy and love that can sustain you in times of trial, give you courage when anxiety conspires to keep you small, and be a source of joy in the midst of sorrow and struggles. It’s an experience of blessing, as Jesus was blessed, with an assurance of your belovedness.
This is the starting point and the end of all spiritual experience: knowing ourselves as beloved--not for what we’ve accomplished or earned, but for who we are, as we are. We are beloved--not perfected. We are blessed, but not immune from suffering and disappointment, and loss; unconditionally loved in and through everything about us-- all that is good and hard, all that is exhilarating and tedious about being human. Our life in and with Jesus starts and ends in this foundational experience: knowing we are loved and we are blessed. “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” he said at the beginning of the his most famous sermon, “for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
Starting today in church and in coming weeks, we’re given passages from the Old Testament that the first followers of Jesus used to help them both understand and give expression to what they experienced in Jesus. So we’ll hear a lot from one source in particular, the prophet Isaiah, and a haunting series of passages from Isaiah that describe a mysterious Suffering Servant:
Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations. He will not cry or lift up his voice or make it heard in the street; a bruised reed he will not break and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice. . .I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness, I have taken you by the hand and kept you; I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness. . .
This is what our spiritual forebears saw and experienced in Jesus, and what they felt themselves called to in following him: a life of redemptive suffering; of bringing light into darkness and freedom to those in prison. And they realized that in Jesus something broke open that had once seemed closed, that God was not tribal, but universal; that the love and forgiveness, mercy and justice of Jesus was not just for some, but for all. As the Apostle Peter said in his first public sermon after Jesus’ resurrection, describing his own epiphany--his moment of clarity coming to him after considerable struggle: “I truly understand that God shows no partiality.” Think of the implications of that one, breathtaking insight: God shows no partiality.
In coming weeks, if you make it to church, you’ll hear two versions of Jesus’ call to his disciples, allowing you to consider what it’s like when you’re called to something or to follow someone so important that you’re willing to leave other things behind, all that doesn’t make the cut when you start asking yourselves what’s truly important. Then there will be several weeks when we’ll read through that most famous sermon of Jesus---the Sermon on the Mount. It begins with what’s known as “the Beatitudes,” a series of blessings he pronounces: “blessed are the poor in spirit; blessed are those who mourn; blessed are the merciful; blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness;” and more. But after words of blessing there follows a concise, comprehensive articulation of Jesus’ moral and ethical teachings. Prepared to be challenged: you hear Jesus’ demanding and uncompromising call to practice love, justice and reconciliation.
Epiphany culminates with the second Epiphany in Jesus’ life (his baptism being the first), sometimes called the Transfiguration. This is when Jesus climbs a mountain with his three closest disciples and has a mystical encounter with two great prophets of ancient Israel: Moses and Elijah. Just as at his baptism, he hears the voice from the cloud calling him beloved. He’ll need to remember his belovedness, for he also sees how his life is going to end and why. When he comes from the mountain he makes his way to Jerusalem and all that awaits him there. And we are called to walk with them, and so begins our journey in Lent.
So if you take nothing else away from my time with you today, remember this: your bishop encouraged you to show up in church every Sunday in Epiphany so that you might be surrounded with beauty and spiritual strength; receive new insight, enabling you to live with greater calm and confidence in the midst of uncertainty, and with joy in the face of anxiety and fear; and be challenged to grow in faith and in love. There’s a lot going on in our world, in the country, in our families, places of work, and within ourselves. There’s a lot coming at us all the time. It’s like we’re living in a whirlwind. But we need not, as St. Paul once wrote, “be tossed to and fro by every wind.” There’s a better way to live. Jesus shows us a better way.
So let’s go back to the Jordan and meet ourselves in Jesus’ baptism. All four biblical accounts of Jesus’ life agree that this was a profound mystical experience for him. All agree on the basic storyline: He came to be baptized by John; the images are of light, skies opening, a dove descending. A voice from heaven speaks: “You are my Beloved. With you, I am well pleased.”
Where they differ is in describing how he came to understand what had happened to him. In the first gospel to be written down, that of Mark, upon rising out of the water, Jesus immediately sees the skies open and the dove descend. In that moment he hears the voice saying, “You are my beloved.” Although he was in a crowd, the experience was private--no one else saw the dove or heard the voice. Have you ever had an experience like that--a private experience in a public setting? In Matthew, the version we read today, his epiphany was a public experience. Others also saw the dove and heard the voice. They, too, knew that something big was happening. In the last gospel to be written, it wasn’t Jesus who had the experience, but John the Baptist: “I saw the dove descending on Him,” John proclaims, “and I heard the voice from heaven say, ‘This is my Beloved.’” And in the gospel of Luke, the baptism is described as something that happened off-stage, and Jesus doesn’t realize its significance until later, when in prayer he saw the dove and heard the voice.
I love it when the Bible is ambiguous and multi-layered in its storytelling. For these varied accounts, taken together, describe nearly every way we might experience epiphanies of our own: privately or publicly; first hand or mediated by another; as it’s happening or later, upon reflection. Personally, my epiphanies are more like ones described by Luke. I almost always need time to reflect on what’s happened in my life. But all are ways we might experience such moments, clarifying who we are, what we are to do, and who God is to us.
The take home message is this: God will give us the clarity we need to make our way in this world. It won’t come easily, without struggle, but it will come. And we have a better chance experiencing such moments if we open ourselves to the possibility of being met by God, seeking experiences that can be occasions of revelation. Remember that Jesus went to be baptized. So pay attention to that kind of impulse nudging you to show up somewhere, to seek someone out, to turn off your device of choice and listen for the voice that speaks in silence.
Remember that beginning and end point of all spiritual encounter is blessing, blessing and belovedness. Now that’s easier to imagine and accept when life is new and fresh and full of possibility: which is why, I suppose, we baptize babies and cry at weddings. Our elder son was married recently, and my mother said to me, watching him and his beautiful new wife, full of wistfulness, “Oh, they are so happy. It’s too bad that life must happen to them.” It’s harder to remember that we’re beloved and blessed when we’re tired, in a rut, overwhelmed, sad and anxious. But blessing and belovedness are true in those moments as well--perhaps especially so. It takes a bit of effort, and the support of others, to live a life of blessing and belovedness when we don’t feel it.
I close by asking a question that I heard James Ryan, Dean of Harvard Graduate School of Education, pose as a “bonus question,” at the end of a commencement speech in which he proposed five essential questions that we can ask ourselves in order to live a creative and meaningful life. If we continually ask ourselves those five questions (which I won’t tell you but you can read about later) he said at the end of our lives we are far more likely to answer affirmatively the bonus question. It comes, he said, from a poem by Raymond Carver entitled “Late Fragment,” and the question is this:
And did you get what you wanted from this life, even so?
The haunting phrase, even so, acknowledges everything that we struggle with: all the fear, anxiety, disappointment and uncertainty that make up a human life. And did you get what you wanted from this life, even so?
The poem goes on to answer:
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself beloved on the earth.
That’s what Jesus wants for you, for all of us. To know ourselves, as he knew himself, as beloved on the earth. Jesus is an epiphany, you know, a revelation in himself, revealing the depth and breadth of God’s love. “You are my beloved,” the voice from heaven told him, and everything about his life, death, and resurrection is meant to assure us that we are, too. “I truly understand that God shows no partiality,” Peter declared after the resurrection. In God, there is no partiality, no favoritism, no preference for one group over another.
If you don’t know yourself as blessed, or, like all of us, you need to be reminded, know that that is God’s desire for you. You can pray for it, seek ways to be open to that experience at the heart of Christianity, and be reminded by people like me that you are beloved even when--especially when-- you don’t feel it. If you do know something of your belovedness, you know as well as I what a gift it is. Commit yourself this day, and every day, to offer yourself as a blessing, so that through you, others, too, might know themselves as beloved on the earth.