The Manifestation

 

Yesterday, we celebrated the Epiphany, often seen simply as the day the Wise men arrive to see Jesus. But the Epiphany has a deeper, more profound purpose for us. And the root is found in the word chosen more than 1,700 years ago for the day.

Epiphany, from the ancient Greek, means “manifestation”. For us, to celebrate the Epiphany means we celebrate the very manifestation of GOD in Christ: as in the Word made flesh.

Epiphany also has an awe-inducing, striking appearance character to the word. In the Epiphany, GOD provokes us to see that GOD has been revealed to us in Jesus.

BOOM! GOD is with us! Now!

Note how the “manifestation” of GOD is different than the “incarnation” of GOD we celebrate at Christmas. In the Incarnation, we celebrate that the Word became human in the form of a baby boy. In the Manifestation/Epiphany, we celebrate that GOD has been revealed to us in Jesus.

Photo Credit: concretecandy via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: concretecandy via Compfight cc

A Holy Trinity

Epiphany is the oldest of the church’s principal feasts. Dating to the Third Century, Epiphany held a most prominent place in the lives of early Christians, particularly in the East. Two other principal feasts arrived in the succeeding centuries, making a celebratory Trinity in worship of Epiphany, Easter, and Pentecost.

Far from the more prominent feasts in many Christians’ minds, which focus on their literal character and captivating storylines, Christmas and Holy Week were a much later church development.

This trio of holidays: Epiphany, Easter, and Pentecost: have a less defined and amorphous character. They are much less appealing to the Modernist mind, which focuses on the metaphysics and scientific justifiability of our theology and practice. To the Modernist, the revelation of GOD made manifest is a question of how—as in how is GOD particularly revealed—rather than the striking notion that GOD is revealed.

In my thinking about these three feasts, they together reveal a big idea about GOD’s working in the world. In the Epiphany, we celebrate the manifestation of GOD—as GOD reveals GOD to humanity. In Easter, we celebrate the transformation of the world—as GOD transforms the very nature of humanity in life and death. In Pentecost, we celebrate our partnership in transformation—that the Spirit has come into the world to provoke us as Her partners.

Taken together, these three feasts form a singular arc—a story of the new thing GOD has ushered into the world—a revealing of GOD’s participation, a new life in a new world, and a GOD/human partnership in future transformation. They reveal to us a provoking spirit and a powerful relationship between GOD and humanity.

This arc begins with a revelation of GOD: a manifestation.

Building for Mission

testify doors

a homily for Proper 28C
Text: Luke 21:5-19

Encountering Jesus’s Mission

Jesus ends the teaching at the Temple and begins to leave with his closest followers by saying some pretty tough words. Listen:

In the hearing of all the people he said to the disciples, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and love to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets. They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”

Jesus is saying all of this to his followers loud enough that He can be heard by everybody. The whole crowd can hear Jesus call the scribes self-absorbed elitist pigs who become rich on the backs of the poor and the weak—the widow, once again, appears as a stand-in for the penniless and powerless.

Then the story continues with the first verses of 21:

He looked up and saw rich people putting their gifts into the treasury; he also saw a poor widow put in two small copper coins. He said, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them; for all of them have contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in all she had to live on.”

Again we have the visual of the wealthy giving in one way and that poor widow giving in another. Then:

When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, he said, “As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.”

Notice the thread that runs through this story, as Jesus teaches the disciples about how the scribes and the rich treat the poor, how the poor give sacrificially to the glory of GOD, and how all this wealth that surrounds us will not only crumble, but it will be knocked down and destroyed.

“Bad Times Ahead”

It sounds like that’s the headline to the story Jesus is telling this morning. But don’t worry because He has a 3-point plan for us. Ready?

  1. Don’t be afraid as the world crumbles around you.
  2. Don’t plan your testimony ahead for when you are arrested.
  3. Some aren’t going to survive.

As inspiring moments go, this certainly would make no one’s top 10 list. Thanks, Jesus.

We know that all Jesus predicts here would come true—the Temple was destroyed 40 years later and many apostles were martyred. As much as we are inclined to see this in the past, however, we know that it speaks in a different way to us. If we see this as less historical-predicting-of-a-specific-future and more a Jesus-is-saying-something-that-still-scares-people-about-GOD sort of thing, we can make better sense of it.

As much as Jesus’s concern for the widow and predicting the collapse of the Temple, arrests, and martyring sounds scary to us, perhaps the scariest part in Jesus’s 3-point plan is not the fear for physical safety or even the dying, but the part about the testimony. It says:

So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; for I will give you the words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict.

Decide to not prepare. Don’t seek the advice of a lawyer; don’t even hire one. Don’t plan a strategy. I’ve got this, Jesus says. I’ve got it. I’ll give you the words.

That’s the scariest part, isn’t it?

All we need for Stewardship

Considering so much of their journey to Jerusalem involved teaching about the dangers of wealth, how strange then, that the disciples find themselves in awe of the Temple decorations: “how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God”. Even these will pass away. Nothing we give to the glory of GOD will persist forever. These beauties around us here are as chalk on the pavement—a picture of pink hearts and yellow flowers adorning the words “love, faith, give” on the walk. As permanent as the next rainfall.

We aren’t giving to something that is intended to be around forever. We are giving to the glory of GOD and to GOD’s mission in the world.

Which is why this gospel isn’t a knock on the rich as people—but on a sense of giving that begets power and influence. Giving that makes us feel good and worthy. Giving that makes us feel like we are hot stuff—the kind of people who give.

GOD doesn’t want us to be “the kind of people who give,” GOD wants us to be “people who give”. The problem isn’t that the wealthy have abundance, but that power seems to come with it. The power to oppress, divide, conquer, control.

This little light of mine

We generally avoid talking about money and service—which is what we do this time every year with a sense of dread and irritation. Perhaps with guilt or pride. I don’t relish the opportunity to preach about it. In fact, I feel quite queezy about it.

But I would feel much more uncomfortable avoiding it. And worse, allowing us to think of our giving to the mission of Christ as if it were simply charity—some spare change thrown in a bucket. And my sense of vocation would be in tatters if I didn’t give us all the opportunity to let the Spirit guide our decisions. For many of us here, we like to make the decisions. It is about reflection and confronting our priorities and making hard decisions. Decisions that allow us, as the widow, to give out of our poverty.

This season, I’ve been asking us to think about giving of ourselves—our whole selves. In the coming months, we’ll have some new opportunities to engage with how we might do that. In the season after the Epiphany, we’ll be doing a program that is engaging, conversational, and has been getting rave reviews called Animate. In Lent, we’ll be doing a weekly gifts discernment workshop that will help us better understand what GOD is calling us to do.

But today, we’re focusing on giving of ourselves financially. Giving that is not only to keep the doors open and the lights on or keep the beauty that surrounds us from being knocked over. Giving with a much bigger purpose: to sustain and grow the ministry of St. Paul’s and our work in the wider community.

We may love our liturgy, our font, our windows, our communion vessels. Family members may have donated animals for the creche, renovations in the kitchen, or the purchase of fine vestments like these. These things are idols that draw us away from the true reason we’re called here: that we have all been called to ministry by GOD.

In baptism and in confirmation, we promise to do something incredible and powerful. In serving at the altar on the altar guild, as an acolyte, a reader, or Eucharistic minister. In serving the community as a leader on the vestry, as an usher, a member of Buildings & Grounds, Care/Share, or the Thrift Shop. Many of us are serving and many have had their sabbaticals from service and are discerning how to jump back in. And some are continuously looking for how they fit in—where their ministry is here.

The real reason to give comes from what Jesus says “So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance” for Jesus will guide you. This isn’t simply about words. We are promised that Christ will be with us. That Christ is in us. That we bear the light of Christ.

Our work is to bear the light of Christ to this whole community. He says to us: Don’t be afraid. Jesus is with you. You’ve got that little light to take with you all over St. Clair.

That’s why we sing
This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine…
Ev’rywhere I go,
Jesus gave it to me,

[for more, check out my current stewardship thoughts here]

Breaking Our Fast

break 2

Of all the spiritual disciplines, I am quickly coming to the conclusion that this one is the most important: the discipline of breaking a fast.

The foundation of the word discipline is in speaking of common order–and one’s relationship to order. When we speak of the church’s laws and principles, we refer to the “doctrine and discipline” of the church. When we speak of spiritual disciplines, we speak of practices that bring order to our lives: order that brings our spiritual cores in tune with GOD.

The word discipline, then is about the act of ordering ourselves.

Unfortunately, it has evolved into some pretty strange places. It is euphemism for punishment and abuse. It is used as an excuse for putting one’s self through great discomfort, and even danger, as an act of obedience. And in the spring, when many prepare for Lent, we break out the word to find creative ways to deny ourselves joy or satisfaction. However, none of these speak to the root sense of order and community, seeming to be a mutation of the intention.

This brings me to why I intend to make a discipline of both keeping and breaking a fast.

Where the intention of a fast is to bring one a greater relationship with GOD, it is also about bringing greater awareness of a person with her community. I believe there is a similar intention of relationship and awareness in the act of breaking a fast: an act we often do without intentionality or care.

So often, our fasts are hasty and forceful in their beginning and even more so in their ending. We select something to give up and then when it is over, we gorge ourselves. This is not always the case, of course. But our focus is in the depriving, rather than the experiencing.

On November 1, my family participated in a diocesan initiative called A Fast from Excess, in which we ate for one week on the amount given as SNAP benefits in solidarity with our brothers and sisters who have had those benefits cut. As expected, our experience exposed us to the challenges of others–and those places that mirror our own. It exposed the struggles and the dangers of living in poverty and the importance of food justice as a mission of the church, and an important one for my family. My reflection from Day 5 of the fast expresses much of this experience.

However, as we came to the end of the fast, I did not want us to “go back to normal” after it was over. There is no purpose to a fast that doesn’t change us and our behavior in any way. Or perhaps better, that doesn’t change our behavior in a significant way.

Last Friday, as I was aware that the fast was over, I chose not to walk down to Sue’s Coffee Shop to write my sermon as I often do. I packed my simple lunch as I had all week. And I waited. I wanted the breaking of the fast to be meaningful for me. So I waited.

At 3:30, I picked my daughter up from school and took her to McDonald’s. We had ice cream, french fries, and I drank my first Diet Coke in more than a week. It felt exquisite–to existentially sense the liquid, taste it and feel it, cold and sliding down my throat. It was heavenly.

And yet, the same factors of the fast persist. I am not bound or prevented from trips to McDonald’s or by fancy dinners composed of more than cheap potatoes and frozen veggies, and yet that is how we are eating. I baked two different kinds of bread last night–a rustic Italian and 2 loaves of a buttery peasant bread, putting more work into providing nourishing and inexpensive food for my family. Aside from one other excursion in the last five days, the only liquids I’ve consumed are coffee, water, and milk.

Making a discipline of breaking a fast means that the discipline of keeping a fast had a purpose.

It feels as if I am making an exchange with GOD about the situation. I give a little of myself and gain insight–insight that is to be used to change my behavior. And so I do. The gift of awareness is intended to bring change to our lives, and the promise we make in returning into our old lives is that we do so, not to become who we were before, but a people transformed.

I’d like to hear about your fasts: your experience in keeping and breaking them. Share your thoughts on eating and food; about learning things about your food and how it has come to your table. Most of all, share how you’ve been changed by your experience.

This Advent, I’ll be launching a new project dealing with the discipline of breaking. It is something I’ve put on the backburner for some time, and will go into more details in the coming weeks. I hope you join me in seeing the importance and joy that comes from breaking a fast with intention.

On Baptizing My Son

We often speak of being “off duty” when not at work. We speak of our work days and the double lives of “work me” and “real me”. For the presbyter, there is no such distinction. Or at least there shouldn’t be. The toxic effects of split roles in ministry are numerous. So for clergy, there is no punching of the clock. We are what we are.

There is no work life and home life, but life. And yet there are those things that, for everybody else are entirely separate. This makes those moments when the two collide so strange.

As a presbyter, I have presided over numerous baptisms. Each one has been an honor, particularly the daughter of a good friend. I am able to not only inhabit the office of priest, but be a tangible part of this family’s life. It is powerful stuff.

Baptizing Isaiah

For the parents, there is the opportunity to be a part of something that can inspire awe in us: to witness transformation! To watch our children become something else, something more.

There are only a few places in which the collision between one’s experience as a parent collides with their pastoral role. Yesterday was one of those.

I was acutely aware of my strange discomfort with wanting this incredibly personal, familial moment of public consequence. I wanted to lift my son up and show him off. I wanted to celebrate this moment with my family, cracking jokes in the pew about the mess we made up front. I wanted to run down the aisle, high-fiving everybody that put their hands out. I wanted to be the proud dad of an incredible son.

I also wanted to be the present and comforting pastor to the other family, whose son I also baptized. I wanted to share the spotlight evenly. I wanted the congregation to bask in the moment and soak in the powerful symbols of water and blessing. I didn’t want this moment to be about me at all, but these two beautiful boys to whom we have vowed spiritual support.

This tension was already on my mind. On Saturday, we celebrated the life of a true saint in our community, John Jones. The nave was packed with people whose lives this one man had impacted. I invited his son, Kevin, to speak on behalf of the family. In many ways, it was like the remembrances we often here at memorial services, but something in this activated something in me. Kevin’s wonderful, earnest description of what his father showed him, what his father did to raise him up moved me to reflect on my relationship with my father, and what I would say about how he raised me.

And then I thought of the office and how presbyters have to split themselves (sort of) or perhaps the more accurate “multitask” these critical moments. I thought of how my father, as a presbyter, baptized both of his children, and then later officiated their weddings. How he led memorial services for his parents. That he has, through the most significant moments in his own life, been both pastor and father/son/husband. Both the office and the person. No wonder he tried to talk me into having someone else officiate at my wedding!

It was in that moment that a simultaneously happy and embarrassing thought entered my mind. I thought

Phew! At least there’s a tradition that when a priest dies, the bishop officiates! I can be a real person.

Then the morbidity of these thoughts pushed me elsewhere.

These are the elements of the season, however: life and death and new life. Baptism isn’t just a bath, but a kind of death: a celebration of the ending of one life and the beginning of another. In many ways, this is the under-girding force of all of our Sacraments. They are about the end of one thing and the beginning of something else. They are death to selfishness and rebirth in revolutionary grace.

For that reason alone, inhabiting the office of presbyter at all of these powerful moments is a shockingly humbling, yet empowering thing. Because none of it is about me except for my own experience within it. And that can be an offering to GOD and to the church. I am so very thankful for this and every opportunity I am given.

Throw Your Process Off a Bridge

It has become clear that we are in an age in which process and system are colliding.

Our institutions aren’t failing because they are institutions (and our government isn’t failing simply because it is government).  They fail because the process is obstructing the system.

What I mean by process and system are simply the difference between rules and the entire legal framework. So the process is the current approach to dealing with aspects of the system.  Process is how you call Waste Management to set up trash collection.  System is municipal trash collection itself.

When Jesus railed against the Pharisees in front of the Pharisees, he attacks their process, and not their system.  He affirms that He loves The Law (System) but hates what they’ve done with it, namely their sub-laws (Process).  His argument is for good Jews to throw the Pharisaical process off the nearest bridge.

The prime evidence for our own problems today is Congress, which according to historians, really is as bad as we think, needing to go back to pre-Civil War era to find such dysfunctional government. This dysfunction, is of course, intentional. As if that makes it any better. The process is being used in a way that seems inconsistent with the system. If you think about it at its most base level, the process (small legal measures) is being used to expressly keep the system (the government) from even fulfilling basic functions, such as paying employees timely, compensating for services rendered, or putting professionals in the jobs for which they are highly qualified.  This is clearly a process problem.

The church and the culture at large are flailing at a time in which we most need both conviction and compassion. It is high time we say “screw it” to the process and start preparing the way for the Kingdom.

Forward living or backward obsessing?

My brain is intent on proving me wrong.

More than a decade ago, when my two closest friends were living in East Lansing, I moved down to join them.  Having only visited the apartment once or twice, and not knowing the area very well, I was confident that I knew the way to get there; however, I wasn’t confident of other ways to get there.  After getting stuck behind a few slow-moving cars, I sped around them, only to find I had misjudged the distance before my turn, so I checked my blind spot and did that merge/turn from the left lane.  I focus on that brief moment in which I waited to see if I a car would rear-end me.

I don’t know why, but that memory pops into my head whenever I have the slightest bit of doubt in myself.  I think of that dangerous, stupid thing I did when I was 22, that could have caused a major accident.  And the funny thing is that that comes to mind today when I poor the wrong cereal in a bowl.

The other day, I wrote that we must appreciate a broad view of history, particularly making account for the big picture and the unsavory bits, rather than cherry-pick the meaning we desire.  Sometimes we can’t help it because our feeble brains do that for us.  But I was reminded of the Soren Kierkegaard quote:

“Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.”

I don’t believe time is so linear as that: as if we follow a straight line like a never ending railroad.  Nor do I believe that we live in a circle; locked into a perpetual loop of constant relearning of the very same things.  Time is more mysterious than that.  But I do identify with the underlying difference between forward and backward thinking.  It does seem that those focused on the past are ill-prepared for new challenges: that rather than being knowledgeable about the entire historical endeavor, we relive it in a shorthand.  Like that crazy mistake I made years ago, popping up out of the blue.

A few days ago, Tony Jones wrote about a Hartford Seminary study that demonstrated steeper, more troubling decline across all Christian denominations than expected over the last decade.  The study isolated the one common factor within those places with high congregational vitality is innovation, while the steepest declines are being felt among the unchanging and rigid churches whose liturgy lives in yesterday.  This tracks with the emerging church’s sense that our living, including our liturgy, must be lived as if God is present among us, and should represent a current, interactive relationship.

It might seem as if this contradicts the earlier post’s suggestion of being knowledgeable about the past.  But it doesn’t.  Because the important part is our focus: where our heart resides.  If your heart lives in the past, living in the midst the memories of dead friends and family and life highlights, then your intentions aren’t prepared for the future.  Visiting the future is seen as rejecting the past, so an eternal present is spent in constant backwards comparisons.  However, if your heart lives for the future, then excursions into the past attempt to learn for future benefit, mindful that our present needs are a viable future.

That mistake that haunts me in the present doesn’t really inform me of anything, even safe driving habits.  I don’t remember it constructively or in instructive moments and my brain doesn’t think of it thankfully.  It comes at times of doubt–when I am not confident–and tries to sabotage the present and future, making me cowardly.  It is my brain’s own attempt at intimidating me into not growing up and not dealing with the future.  This is why the idea of seeing our thinking as backwards is so useful, and yet our living must be forwards.

Question:

I encourage you to click over to Tony Jones’ blog in the above link or right here, because he asks an important question about serving the needs of aging membership and the needs of the next generations.  My question is this: how might we help all of us to live forwards, even when our orientation is to be in our heads reading our history backwards?

It’s not the Spiritual, it’s the Religious

Net Neutrality protest at  Google HQ - GoogleR...

Image by Steve Rhodes via Flickr

By now you’ve probably seen this short, snarky essay by Lillian Daniel, “Spiritual but Not Religious?” or you at least know what she’s talking about.  If you haven’t read it, click on over.  It is a pretty good read.

I sympathize with her sentiment, particularly the idea that being individually spiritual without the requirement of community is a particularly Western and American norm.  It reminds me of the all of the “unique” people that need to express their uniqueness by shopping at a store in the mall.  Being an individual is the new fitting in.  It also doesn’t fit in with that cool teacher, Jesus.

But here’s the plight: what if, by disregarding the “spiritual but not religious” trend, we disregard its commentary, and lose the opportunity to learn?  Yes, many use it as a cop out and mimic platitudes themselves, but isn’t it up to us to make our religion not suck?  I’m reminded of Google’s mantra “Don’t be evil.”  Isn’t that what all the self-described spiritual people are saying?  That we’ve been or are evil?  That we hate more than we love?  That we often ruin people’s lives in an attempt to “save” them?

Me?  I’d rather criticize the lazy Christians who would rather make a weekly pilgrimage to sit in a performance of worship while their kids are in “Sunday School” than deal with that intentional community Daniel writes about.  Leave the hubris of the non-Christian alone.  We have enough to go around.