making meaning – a view from the mountaintop

epiphany-1-22-17 the text of the sermon, based on Matthew 17.1-9 and 2 Peter 1.16-21, that I had prepared to preach with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the Last Sunday after the Epiphany, February 26, 2017.

However, as happens on occasion, in the moment, something else occurred, truly, stirred within me, leading me to preach a similar, though extemporaneous, thus, unscripted message. As the words that came to me were not recorded, with apologies to my dear readers, the following sermon text is all I have to share!

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Living requires, demands the art of making meaning. In every encounter, every experience, moment by moment, we add to our ever-increasing trove of memories, our constantly-evolving personal histories. With our physical senses, we hear, see, smell, taste, and touch and with our intuitions, perceive above and beneath, around and through all things; our observations taking shape in our opinions, our perceptions in our points of view. All of it giving shape to our sense of what is real and true.

We always, often unconsciously, are making meaning. Without this constant labor of life (of love!) our existence may seem to be, and perhaps can be nothing else than a random series of unrelated events; the only connection being that we are the ones living through them.

Now, I confess that most of the time when I reflect on my experience the meaning I make tends to validate the worldview I already have conceived and constructed. True, in every moment I can’t afford absentmindedly or, worse, apathetically to abandon my standpoint. In order to continue to be and to become someone, I must stand somewhere; not everywhere. The problem, the danger is that sometimes my perspective can harden, holding, locking me in place, blinding me to new discoveries, constraining me from considering contrary viewpoints. That is, until I am stirred, shaken out of the comfortability, the complacency of my outlook by something so astoundingly “other” I can’t ignore it. Something so unreal that it demands I try to make sense of it.

Jesus, at a crucial moment in his ministry, asked his disciples, “Who do you say I am?”[1] Peter answered, “The Messiah.”[2] I suspect Peter spoke out of his understanding of who the Messiah was, God’s anointed one, and his understanding of what the Messiah would do, save Israel from Roman oppression and restore the nation to the prominence of the time of King David.

Jesus had another destiny. He would not spare the people from suffering. Rather through his suffering he would show another way to live. In God’s Name, confronting the secular and religious powers and principalities, he would die, and then, be raised from death, demonstrating that abundant, eternal life with God is real and true and to be shared with all. Would his disciples, expecting, wanting another kind of Messiah, a-this-world-liberating-from-all-suffering-saving-Messiah continue to follow him? If not, what would it take to convince them?

This coming Wednesday, Ash Wednesday, is the first day of Lent, when we, with Jesus, will begin again his journey to Jerusalem where he, facing the cross of his crucifixion, demonstrates this new way of life of surrender and sacrifice for a cause greater than self. Will we continue to follow him? If not, what would it take to convince us?

the-transfiguration-la-transfiguration-1886-1894-james-tissot-1836-1902-brooklyn-museum

Today, this Last Sunday after the Epiphany, we read of a great revelation. A wholly, completely, and holy, “other” moment when the boundaries between time and space, heaven and earth, temporality and eternity dissolve. When a triple confirmation of Jesus’ identity is given. He glows in effulgent – radiated, not reflected glory. Moses and Elijah, the chief representatives of the Law and the prophets, appear as witnesses to the truth of Jesus. The vox Deus speaks. In this astonishing and terrifying moment, all questions resolve. The disciples are called, wrenched out of the comfort of their commonly held convictions. They behold and believe that Jesus is the Messiah. Basking in the brilliant light of that revelation, they want to remain. But, no! They who follow Jesus must come down from the mountain.

Jesus commands they tell no one. Perhaps in fear they would be considered mad, babbling nonsense or, more truly, in the awareness that there are times when words fail. How does one, how can one describe the ineffable? Later, Peter tried, remembering and reflecting on his experience of being “eyewitnesses of (Jesus’) majesty”…(and hearing) this voice (of God) come from heaven, while we were with (Jesus) on the holy mountain.”

Coming down the mountain, Jesus continues to show his disciples his new way. They are met by a crowd. A man kneels before Jesus begging for the healing of his epileptic son. Jesus cures the boy.[3]

the-possessed-boy-at-the-foot-of-mount-tabor-le-possede-au-pied-du-thabor-1886-1896-james-tissot-1836-1902-brooklyn-museum

The meaning of the mountaintop, where on a clear day, we can see forever, is clear. The transfiguration of Jesus is to be encountered and experienced by all. And the disciples of Jesus, then and now, thus we, with the words of our lips and the works of our lives, are to share with all this transfiguring revelation – that abundant, eternal life with God is real and true. Let us, we who behold and believe that Jesus is the Messiah, follow him and do that.

 

Photograph: me preaching at Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, January 2017, by Pontheolla Mack Abernathy

Illustrations:

The Transfiguration (La transfiguration) (1886-1894), James Tissot (1836-1902), Brooklyn Museum

The possessed boy at the foot of Mount Tabor (Le possédé au pied du Thabor) (1886-1896), James Tissot (1836-1902), Brooklyn Museum

Footnotes:

[1] Matthew 16.15, my emphases

[2] Matthew 16.16

[3] See Matthew 17.14-18

Jesus, are you crazy (or are we)?!

me-preaching-1-22-17 a sermon, based on Matthew 5.38-48, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 7th Sunday after the Epiphany, February 19, 2017

Crowds “from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and from beyond the Jordan,”[1] hearing about Jesus and his healing power and wanting more, followed him, gathering around him. So vast a multitude, Jesus, in order to be seen and heard, ascended a hill, and began to teach.

the-sermon-of-the-beatitudes-la-sermon-des-beatitudes-1886-james-tissot-1836-1902

Over the last three Sundays, we have read portions of Jesus’ great Sermon on the Mount.[2] We have heard his surprising pronouncements of blessing on the poor in spirit, the mournful, the meek, the persecuted – the marginalized folk on the fringes of society.[3] We have heard his stirring encouragements to those blessed folk to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world; through their lives and labors seasoning, preserving the earth and dispelling the world’s darkness.[4] We have heard his stunning declarations, truly, his radical reiterations of God’s commandments, “You have heard that it was said to those in ancient times…but I say to you…”[5]

Today, Jesus continues his examination, his illumination of God’s commandments, truly his description of the nature of life in God’s kingdom. He speaks of lex talionis, the law of retaliation, “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.” At inception, this law was intended to be an act of justice as fairness, justice meted out measure-for-measure to assure that the punishment for an offense was neither arbitrary nor more severe than the crime.[6] Nevertheless, Jesus gives his followers an alternative to doing unto others as they have had done unto them (which, in this case, when followed to its logical conclusion would render everyone blind and toothless![7]). His followers are to face and overcome evil with good.[8]

Sometimes I wonder why anyone, once listening to Jesus, his miraculous healing power aside, would continue to follow him. For most of the people who gathered around Jesus were society’s least, last, and left out. They possessed little to nothing of material or political capital. Therefore, daily entangled in poverty’s snare, they were most susceptible to the disruptive change of life’s fickle chance and circumstance and most defenseless against the cruelties of an oppressive Roman Empire. Therefore, Jesus’ counsel not to fight as evil fights, but rather to turn the other cheek, to love the enemy, to pray for the persecutor, so to be perfect as God is perfect, indeed, to perfect, to fulfill the intent of God’s law, truly God’s very nature, I imagine must have sounded crazy!

Still does! For the world hasn’t changed. Power still takes shape in vast armies and stockpiles of deadly weaponry, mounds of money and expansive empire, relationships with those in control, connections with those in the know, and the threat of violence and the use of force.

And that’s the point. The world into which Jesus came was the same as it is today and ever shall be. And this world, our world is the same as that world, his world that responded to him and his message that truest power is the sacrifice of love by killing him.

And that’s the paradox. Jesus, in his life and ministry, confronted the world with his kingdom-challenge, his kingdom-bet that God, God’s life, God’s nature, God’s kingdom of unconditional, universal love was, is the greatest power of all time and the greatest power before time and the greatest power beyond time. And the world (and this point, I believe, is at the heart of the gospel of Jesus Christ, even more, I daresay, at the foundation of all divine revelation), thinking itself wise, demonstrated its foolishness, taking Jesus up on his challenge, his bet by murdering him, thus proving itself wrong and him right. For the world in murdering Jesus convicted itself for always doing what it first and last, ever and always does: Kill…

But nothing kills love. Love always lives. Lives in Jesus. Lives in his message. Lives in all, in us who believe and follow him. Lives whenever our anger leads to reconciliation, not retribution. Lives whenever we retaliate against an enemy with love, not hatred, with the compassion of understanding and not the violence of indifference, even and especially when we do not and cannot agree.

And when, not if we struggle to believe and follow Jesus, verily, when we think Jesus is crazy or…and that we’re crazy to believe and follow him, then let us pray in the words of our Collect: “O Lord…Send your Holy Spirit and pour into our hearts your greatest gift, which is love…”[9] For it is only the abiding presence and the abundant power of the Holy Spirit that makes the love of Jesus, as he declares in his teaching and as he demonstrates in his life, live in us!

 

Photograph: me preaching at Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, January 2017, by Pontheolla Mack Abernathy

Illustration: The Sermon of the Beatitudes (La sermon des béatitudes) (1886), James Tissot (1836-1902)

Footnotes:

[1] Matthew 4.25

[2] Matthew, chapters 5-7

[3] Matthew 5.1-12, The Beatitudes

[4] Matthew 5.13-20

[5] Matthew 5.21-37, my emphasis

[6] See Exodus 21.24, Leviticus 24.19-20, and Deuteronomy 19.21

[7] I borrow this thought from Martin Luther King, Jr., who, making a case for the utter uselessness of violence as a vehicle to achieve equity and for the persuasive, non-corrosive power of love, wrote, “Violence as a way of achieving racial justice is both impractical and immoral. It is impractical because it is a descending spiral ending in destruction for all. The old law of an eye for an eye leaves everybody blind. It is immoral because it seeks to humiliate the opponent rather than win his understanding; it seeks to annihilate rather than to convert. Violence is immoral because it thrives on hatred rather than love. It destroys community and makes brotherhood impossible. It leaves society in monologue rather than dialogue. Violence ends by defeating itself. It creates bitterness in the survivors and brutality in the destroyers” (Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story, 1958); my emphasis.

[8] The New Revised Standard Version of the Bible reads, “Do not resist an evildoer” (Matthew 5.39), which can be interpreted to mean that one is to offer no defense against an opponent or an offender. However, the Greek infinitive (antistenai) translated “to resist” or “to oppose”, infers that resistance or opposition to an evildoer is to be done without violence. In other words, a follower of Jesus is called to contend against evil, but not with the force that evil has employed, but rather with the power of love.

[9] The Collect for the 7th Sunday after Epiphany (full text): O Lord, you have taught us that without love whatever we do is worth nothing; Send your Holy Spirit and pour into our hearts your greatest gift, which is love, the true bond of peace and of all virtue, without which whoever lives is accounted dead before you. Grant this for the sake of your only Son Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

choose?

preaching-1-22-17 a sermon, based on Deuteronomy 30.15-20, Psalm 119.1-8, and Matthew 5.21-37, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 6th Sunday after the Epiphany, February 12, 2017

“I have set before you…life and prosperity, death and adversity. If you obey God’s commandments…you shall live…But if your heart turns away…you shall perish…Choose life.”

So speaks Moses.

moses-restating-the-law-to-the-people-of-israel-before-they-enter-the-promised-land-henri-felix-emmanuel-philippoteaux-1815-1884

The Israelites, following their exodus from Egyptian captivity and their forty-year sojourn through the wilderness, stand on the threshold of the land God promised them. Throughout their journey, many were the declarations about the blessings of obedience to God’s will as codified in the commandments and warnings of the misfortunes of disobedience. Now, about to enter the Promised Land, Moses reminds the people of their choice: life or death.

The psalmist echoes Moses’ praise of obedience to God, singing, “Happy are those…who walk in the law of the Lord.” Then, in addition to “law”, using, lest any fail to grasp the point, a cascade of words, verily, synonyms for God’s will: “decrees”, “ways”, “commandments”, “statutes”, “judgments.”

But an immediate problem arises. One inherent in our humanity, which our Collect clearly identifies: “O God…through the weakness of our mortal nature, we can do nothing good…”[1] “Weakness” ironically, for me, conveys the power of our freewill, poetically expressed in the words of a prayer, “the devices and desires of our own hearts.”[2] Succinctly stated, we humans want our way, follow our will. In Moses’ language, we “bow down to other gods” – our bodily appetites and lusts of the flesh, our pride and trust in our intellects, our feelings and senses of how things and others should be, our hungers for self-attainment.

Jesus, speaking expansively of God’s commandments, amplifies our problem. In one example, Jesus reminds us of the olden law, “You shall not murder.” Then he declares that beyond our outward obedience in refraining from killing someone we, in our inward will, must renounce our right to be “angry with a brother or sister.” Given our egoistic freewill and our desire that things and others be as we want them, it is improbable, impossible for any of us never to be angry. Therefore, according to Jesus’ stringent definition, none of us can keep God’s commandments and therefore, according to Moses’ strict description, we unavoidably choose death!

No choice is no choice. So, Moses, what do you mean, “Choose life”?

The Israelites, at journey’s end, stood on the threshold of the Promised Land. An auspicious moment for Moses, the Lawgiver, to remind them of their life-or-death choice. We, near the end of the season of Epiphany, stand on the threshold of another Lent when we again will walk with Jesus to Jerusalem. When we again will tell the story of his crucifixion and death. When we again will remind ourselves of our need to crucify anew all that hinders us, in the words of our Collect, from “keeping God’s commandments (that) we may please God both in will (what we desire) and deed (what we do).”

But given who we are, the way we are, how do we, how can we keep God’s commandments? To ask that question is the first step. The second and only other thing required is for us to trust, as our Collect also says, “the help of God’s grace” to do the rest.

Pontheolla and I have a dear friend whose company we enjoy. On most occasions when he comes to our home he dines and partakes of libations with us. Only sometimes does he bring anything to share to eat or drink. Pontheolla, being hospitable, doesn’t seem to mind. I, being territorial, take umbrage at what I consider his taking undue advantage. I once said to her, “Baby, all he brings is his appetite and you do all the rest!”

Precisely. In this, Pontheolla is an earthly, incarnational image of who God is and how God works. Whenever we come with even the barest hunger and thirst, as the Beatitudes commend, for God’s righteousness,[3] God, through the grace of the Holy Spirit, fills us, leading, guiding us into obedience.

 

Photograph: me preaching at Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, January 2017, by Pontheolla Mack Abernathy

Illustration: Moses restating the Law to the people of Israel before they enter the Promised Land, Henri Félix Emmanuel Philippoteaux (1815-1884)

Footnotes:

[1] The Collect for the 6th Sunday after the Epiphany (full text): O God, the strength of all those who put their trust in thee: Mercifully accept our prayers; and because, through the weakness of our mortal nature, we can do no good thing without thee, grant us the help of thy grace, that in keeping thy commandments we may please thee both in will and deed; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

[2] From Confession of Sin, Evening Prayer: Rite I, The Book of Common Prayer, page 62.

[3] Matthew 5.6

recognizing (our) reality

preaching-epiphany-laurens-1-22-17a sermon, based on Matthew 5.13-20 (and Matthew 5.1-12) and Isaiah 58.1-12, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 5th Sunday after the Epiphany, February 5, 2017

“You are the salt of the earth…you are the light of the world.”

you-are-the-salt-of-the-earth-the-light-of-the-world

Jesus tells his followers, tells us that we are extraordinary and, so being, we have an essential work to perform without which the earth is unseasoned, even more, unpalatable, still more, perishable and the world left in darkness!

To grasp this magnificence of our identity and the magnitude of our ministry, we need to review the prologue to Jesus’ astounding declaration, the Beatitudes: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, those persecuted for the sake of righteousness.”

Of boundless ways to interpret the Beatitudes, I submit to you that they are universal statements of our ontology. Therefore, not about other people in other conditions than we ourselves or even about us at particular times, say, when we’re in mourning. No. The Beatitudes bespeak the common human being-ness of all of us, pointing to this all-of-the-time reality of our existence: Every one of us (whether that “one” is a person, a family, a community, even a nation), in the words of the prayer, “live and move and have our being” betwixt ever-present, simultaneous, oft opposing desires and interests. To flesh this out, I will repeatedly, tirelessly (but I pray not tiresomely!) use that common conjunction “and”:

To be poor in spirit is to be conscious of our wealth and poverty, our riches and our lack, both material and spiritual, ours and that of others…

To be mournful is to know that daily we live and walk step by step with others and ourselves toward the valley of the shadow of our dying…

To be meek is to realize that we, in every relationship and at all times, can choose between opening our hands in vulnerable, unconditional welcome and folding our arms in preferential, at times, fearful indifference…

To hunger and thirst for righteousness is to be alert to the cry for justice from anyone, anywhere, any time and to be aware of our always present tendency toward self-preservation,  encouraging us to declare, “That’s not my problem”…

To be merciful is to acknowledge we always are called to compassionate service for others and, in our self-interest, to hold onto our resources of substance and of self for ourselves…

To be pure in heart is to confess our inner tension, sometimes turmoil of being true to our values and sacrificing our integrity for the sake of expediency or safety…

To make peace is to be aware of the conflict between recognition and rejection of “the other”; all who think and feel, look and act, believe and behave differently…

To be persecuted for the sake of righteousness is to understand that life always challenges us to stand up for a just cause and to stand back in self-protective silence.

Through the lens of the Beatitudes, I believe that Jesus calls us to recognize reality, ours and his. That we and Jesus always are being caught, at times crucified between competing, conflicting aims. Now, grasping that, Jesus says, “You are the salt of the earth, the light of the world!”

We, who follow Jesus, are called to be and do as he is and does; like salt that blends with food to season and to preserve, indeed, to save, like light that dispels darkness.

Jesus doesn’t tell us when or how or for whom we do this. However, he does tell us “I have come not to abolish (the law and the prophets), but to fulfill them.” Therefore, let us take to our hearts the counsel of the prophet Isaiah.

the-prophet-isaiah-1896-1902-james-tissot-1836-1902-the-jewish-museum-nyc

To be and to act as salt and light is…

To loose the bonds of injustice,

to undo the thongs of the yoke,

to let the oppressed go free,

to break every yoke…

to share (our) bread with the hungry,

to bring the homeless poor into (our) house…

(even when our “house” is our nation!)[1]

to cover (the naked).

When we, again, whether as individuals, families, communities, even as a nation, do these things (and, as this is not an exhaustive list, then things like these things), “then”, Isaiah declares, “(our) light shall break forth like dawn”, which is another way of saying to do the work of light always creates more light and never more darkness.

 

Photographs:

me preaching at Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, January 2017, by Pontheolla Mack Abernathy

salt and votive candle; backdrop photo  – driveway, Clevedale Historic Inn and Gardens, Spartanburg, SC, by Timothy MacBeth Veney

Illustration: The Prophet Isaiah (1896-1902), James Tissot (1836-1902), The Jewish Museum, NYC

Footnote:

[1] My explicatory addition, in the light of the times, to Isaiah’s prophecy.

summum bonum

preaching-1-22-17 a sermon, based on Micah 6.1-8, Matthew 5.1-12, and 1 Corinthians 1.18-31, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 4th Sunday after Epiphany, January 29, 2017

“What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God?”

micah-exhorting-the-israelites-to-repentance-gustave-dore-1832-1883

This word of the prophet Micah is the Hebrew Bible’s magna carta, great charter of life, supreme expression of the summum bonum, “the highest good” of human living.

Amazingly, though scriptural, it’s not especially religious; as religion may be conceived as the creedal declaration or ceremonial possession embodied by (or, worse, entombed in) some sacred institution.

Not for Micah. A “good” life, a “good” religion always involves action, therefore, is always less about what we confess with our lips or symbolize in our ceremonies and always more, in accord with our confession and our rituals, what we profess with our lives.

We “do justice.” Knowing our human longing for fairness, we act equitably toward others. We “love kindness.” Knowing the nature, the reality of human suffering, we act compassionately with others amidst their travails. We “walk humbly with God.” Knowing our personal strengths and weaknesses, our bright lights and dark shadows, we act humbly, with little sense of privilege, even less entitlement, striving to live at one with our Creator, the creation, and all creatures.

At the heart of Micah’s prophecy, this idea of moral instruction as fruit, not seed; in other words, as the articulation of what already is, not the expression of an ambition for what ought be is a lens through which we can view the Beatitudes – Jesus’ description of blessedness, the Christian magna carta, charter of life, summum bonum, verily, the Christian way to fulfill, to do Micah’s word…

the-sermon-of-the-beatitudes-la-sermon-des-beatitudes-1886-james-tissot-1836-1902

To be poor in spirit is to recognize the nature of life in this world – so fundamental that it is the first state of blessedness from which all else flows – that there is little to nothing of circumstance, chance, even our choices (always in response to circumstance and chance) that we command or control. Thus, we, knowing our constant need for God, walking humbly with God, act; mourning with others who grieve, for always with someone, sometimes ourselves there is grief, hungering and thirsting for righteousness, for always somewhere there is evil and within us, the temptation to do evil, making peace, for always, both without and within us, there is conflict, even being persecuted on the side of the suffering against the will of the strong, for always someplace there is oppression.

But back to Micah. For grander epiphanies await us!

This great teaching, “do justice, love kindness, walk humbly with God”, is set within the context of conflict. A trial. God calls the people to answer for their failings of disobedience, which are so severe that God summons “the mountains…and (the) foundations of the earth”, creation itself, to listen.

Yet God, in making this divine case against the people, is not wrathful, wanting to punish them. Verily, in a stunning reversal, God is not the plaintiff, but the defendant raising a question about divine conduct, asking the people to voice their complaints, “What have I done to you? How have I wearied you?”

This is a God who, in calling the people to account, wants, wills to be held accountable. This is a God as judge who wants, who wills to be judged.

This is a disruption, a destruction of all legal tradition, all juridical convention! This is beyond any traditional, conventional institutionalized, religious understanding of God’s nature, God’s being and behaving. This, therefore, is outside of any customary conception of the divine-human relationship.

What is “this”? God rises to the summum bonum, telling us, showing us the highest good! God does justice, loves kindness, walks humbly with us! The chiefest epiphany, revelation of which, as Paul proclaims, is “Christ crucified.” Our God ascends to the summum bonum by being raised on a self-sacrificial cross of crucifixion and death for us.

It is this God, our astounding, worldly-wisdom-defying-and-destroying God to whom we in the awe of gratitude would make offerings, the greater, the better – from a “burnt-offering of one young calf” to “thousands of rams” and “tens of thousands of rivers of oil” to “my firstborn.” And our God answers, “No, I don’t want your gifts. I want you.”

So, then let us do justice, love kindness, walk humbly, which is Micah’s way of echoing Jesus, indeed, Micah’s way of our fulfilling, doing, being poor in spirit, mournful, meek, hungering and thirsting for God’s righteousness, merciful, pure in heart, peacemaking.

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This was the original end of this sermon…until a sleepless late last night into this morning as I pondered President Trump’s executive order banning travel to American shores of folk from seven Muslim-majority nations – an act that heartened his supporters and horrified his detractors and sparked protests at airports around the nation of many proclaiming welcome to immigrants and refugees and provoked judicial temporary restraining orders to stay the implementation of the ban; this last, ensuring legal jostling and jousting for some time to come.

I recognize and accept the risk of saying anything that, for some of us, may cross the line from spiritual to political matters. However, I believe that politics, from the Greek polis, city, and, by extension, the human community, is concerned with how we, in the words of the prayer, “live and move and have our being” – think and feel, intend and act – together. Moreover, as a Christian pastor and preacher, as your pastor and preacher, I also recognize and accept my responsibility to share counsel with you from God’s Word of how we “live and move and have our being” in this world.

Now, I never will tell you what to think. I entrust that to your individual, inner spiritual and ethical bearings as guided by the illumination of God’s Spirit. I will share with you a view, a vision of how to think.

And based on this day’s scriptural passages, I submit to you that the tension has heightened excruciatingly between border security and national safety and our anthemic American identity as “the land of the free and the home of the brave”; a land and home, from inception, save for our Native American sisters and brothers, populated by immigrants; some arriving of their free will and others brought captive.

And though here in Laurens, South Carolina, for most of us, the subject of immigration and the concerns of refugees may not rise to the apex of our lists of daily pressing issues, perhaps even of our mildest interest, the values, the virtues of justice as unconditional equality and honoring the God-given dignity of every human being as our Baptismal Covenant bears witness always call us to act wherever we are with whatever we have and however we can for the least, the last, and the left out.

How you, I, and we do that is for your, my, and our discernment. But, in the spirit of Micah, do it, we must.

 

Photograph: me preaching at Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, by Pontheolla Mack Abernathy

Illustrations:

Micah exhorting the Israelites to repentance, Gustave Doré (1832-1883)

The Sermon of the Beatitudes (La sermon des béatitudes) (1886), James Tissot (1836-1902)

from light to life

preaching-epiphany-laurens-1-22-17 a sermon, based on Isaiah 9.1-4 and Matthew 4.12-23, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 3rd Sunday after Epiphany, January 22, 2017

the-prophet-isaiah-1896-1902-james-tissot-1836-1902-the-jewish-museum-nyc

“There will be no gloom for those who were in anguish.” Isaiah speaks to a dispirited people dwelling “in darkness” of war’s destruction and desolation. Worse, they believe themselves afflicted – “in the former time, brought into contempt” – by none other than God. There are times, when despair so relentlessly, ruthlessly overshadows a people that it seems to them that the cosmos has turned against them.[1] So, it was for those to whom Isaiah spoke into the depths of their gloom and, lest they miss the message, emphatically proclaiming twice their coming deliverance and in the present perfect tense:

The people who walked in darkness

have seen a great light.

Those who lived in a land of deep darkness,

on them light has shined.

This is prophetic and emphatic speech; not foretelling, predicting the future, but rather forthtelling, proclaiming what God will do. And because it is a work of God, who dwells beyond time and space, once the word is uttered, it is considered accomplished though it has yet to become manifest in human history.

Reading on, Isaiah declares how God will bring light to this people dwelling in darkness: A child has been born for us…Authority rests on his shoulders, whose name is Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for…his kingdom. He will establish and uphold it with justice and righteousness, now and forevermore.[2]

This passage we often read at Christmas as we Christians emphasize our belief that Jesus, in his birth, his coming into the world fulfills Isaiah’s prophecy…

This, too, is the view of Matthew, who, writing about the inauguration of Jesus’ ministry in Galilee with a people, according to secular history, living in the shadow of oppression by the Roman Empire, and, according to salvation history, dwelling in the darkness of their estrangement from God, recalls, revives Isaiah’s prophecy: “The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light…for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.” From that time, Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.

What sense do we make of this? We know that history’s pages are replete with sorrowful stories of peoples who have walked in the darkness of war’s destruction and desolation. And, given our demonstrable human propensity to repeat our past, we also know that today peoples do walk in darkness and, doubtless, in the future will walk in darkness.

So, does Isaiah’s prophecy remain to be fulfilled?

Are the glad tidings of Christmas merely wishful thinking?

Is John the baptizer’s question of Jesus, which Matthew also recounts, sadly still operative: “Are you the one to come or shall we look for another?”[3]

I pray not, for another way to look at Isaiah’s prophecy of what God will do is to see it as a sign of hope. Throughout history, people dwelling in the darkness of war and oppression still could conceive of the light of peace and justice; stirring their cold hearts, strengthening their weak hands to labor to bring the vision from the light of their imagination into the life of their reality…

And another way to look our Christmas proclamation of Jesus’ birth is to see it as a sign of what God does. God’s will of peace and justice is revealed not in bold strokes of fearsome cosmic portents, much less by overruling force or overriding violence, but rather in the weakest, helpless flesh of a baby; therefore like our flesh…

And another way to look at Matthew’s testimony that Jesus and his ministry fulfill Isaiah’s prophecy is to see it as a sign of how God does what God does. Through us.

Jesus demonstrated that in his ministry. Jesus called Simon and Andrew, James and John, saying, “Follow me. I will make you fish for people.” Immediately, they followed Jesus.

the-calling-of-saint-peter-and-saint-andrew-vocation-de-saint-pierre-et-saint-andre-james-tissot-1836-1902

Those first disciples, already with their livelihoods, their lives, were in no obvious desire for a new vision, much less a new vocation. Yet when God calls, especially with the claim of discipleship, “Follow me”, almost always it is invasive and disruptive.

Near January’s end, we stand on the threshold of a new year. We dare not stand still, failing to see what God may do with us and through us in this world. What is it that Jesus is calling us to do to bring the vision of peace and justice not to light – for that, in prophetic proclamation, Christmas celebration, and Matthew’s narration, already has happened – but to life?

 

Photograph: me preaching at Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, by Pontheolla Mack Abernathy

Illustrations:

The Prophet Isaiah (1896-1902), James Tissot (1836-1902), The Jewish Museum, NYC

The Calling of Saint Peter And Saint Andrew (Vocation De Saint Pierre Et Saint André), James Tissot (1836-1902)

Footnotes:

[1] I recall the Apostle Paul’s encouraging rhetorical question (Romans 8.31), “If God is for us, who can be against us?” As I read Isaiah 9.1-4, apparently for Zebulun and Napthali, if God is against you, who can be for you?

[2] Isaiah 9.6-7a

[3] Matthew 11.3

witnessing to truth

Washington Diocese of the Episcopal Church a sermon, based on Isaiah 49.1-7 and John 1.29-42, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 2nd Sunday after Epiphany, January 15, 2016

isaiah-1896-1902-james-tissot

Over 2500 years ago, Isaiah spoke to the people Israel exiled in Babylon. Defeated, dispirited, they needed no prophetic word of correction, but rather consolation. In God’s name, Isaiah proclaimed, “You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified.”

God recommissioned the people to be “a light to the nations,” the whole world, to witness to the truth that the quest for salvation, for prosperity and peace involved suffering and survival.

History, biblical, modern, and post-modern, confirms that our Jewish sisters and brothers – from their exodus from Egypt, through their sojourn in the Sinai wilderness, in the horror of the Holocaust, and unto this day when the bigotry of anti-Semitism still cries, “Christ-killers” – know the cost in suffering and the promise in survival of their witness to the world.

st-john-the-baptist-preaching-anastasio-fontebuoni-1571-1626-palatine-gallery-florence-italy

Over 2000 years ago, John the baptizer declared to the people around the River Jordan near Jerusalem what God was doing in Jesus: “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” John witnessed to the truth that the quest for salvation, for healing and wholeness involved sacrifice.

Jesus, through his life and ministry, seeking the least, last, and lost, proclaiming a radical return to the heart of the law of life – love God, love neighbor – and challenging the status quo of the selfish and unshared privilege of secular and religious powers and principalities, charted a course that wended its way to Calvary, ending on a sacrificial cross of crucifixion and death.

Today, we read the prophecies of Isaiah and John. Prophecies of witness. A witness to truth. A truth involving suffering and sacrifice.

“Witness” is derived from the Greek martus, bearing the same root of the word “martyr.” For to witness does not mean to behold a truth with physical sight, but to testify to it, always being prepared to walk toward and, if necessary, through death’s door.

Today, we read the prophecies of Isaiah and John in this weekend when we remember Martin Luther King, Jr.; celebrating his life, commemorating his legacy. Nearly fifty years ago, Martin prophesied, testifying to the truth that the American dream of universal equality and the opportunity to enjoy the Creator-endowed “certain unalienable Rights…(of) Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”[1] was unfulfilled.[2] In bearing, in being that witness, Martin was murdered, martyred.

That prophecy, that dream remains unfulfilled. Today, America is a land where all cannot say, “Thank God Almighty, we are free at last.”[3] Where people still are judged not by the content of their character, but by their skin’s color, class status, sexual orientation, gender, or chosen creed; any, all of which able to determine the access or lack to the fullest range of life’s opportunities. Where abiding poverty in a land of abundant plenty still daily crushes the heart of hope. Where presidential candidates still play the “pokered cards” of race, class, and creed hoping to amass the winning number of electoral chips.

Yes, we have made progress. Speaking personally, I will be 65 this year and, in my lifetime, there was a time when I, as an African American cleric, would not have been the priest-in-charge of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, South Carolina; such was the reigning and restrictive racial divide in our society and in our church. Yet, as there remains much progress to be made, to paraphrase Robert Frost, there are promises to keep and miles to go before we sleep.[4]

The bright beacon of Epiphany’s declaration that Jesus’ life and ministry of love and justice are for all people, for the whole world casts its searing, scathing light on the reality that the prophecy, the dream of the universality of equality remains unfulfilled.

ronald-stuart-thomas-photograph-by-christopher-barker

The late, great Ronald Stuart Thomas,[5] a Welsh Anglican cleric, is one of my favorite poets. His lucid, austere verse speaks deeply of common human emotions and experiences. In his poem, Judgment Day, Thomas expresses the regret of one who, like the rich man of Jesus’ parable, dead and entombed in Hades, looks up, too late recognizing those who in life were beneath him and thus he never saw:[6]

In health happy, (I was)

Careless of the claim

Of the world’s sick

Or the world’s poor.”[7]

The dream of the world’s least, last, and lost remains unfulfilled. In 2017, how will I, you, we respond so that the regret of Judgment Day never is ours?

 

Photographs:

me preaching at The Washington National Cathedral, Friday, January 27, 2006, by Walt Calahan

Ronald Stuart Thomas by Christopher Barker

Illustrations:

Isaiah (1896-1902), James Tissot

St. John the Baptist Preaching, Anastasio Fontebuoni (1571-1626), Palatine Gallery, Florence, Italy

Footnotes:

[1] From The Declaration of Independence

[2] See The American Dream, Dr. King’s commencement address delivered at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania on June 6, 1961.

[3] The closing words of King’s I Have a Dream speech, delivered on August 28, 1963 as the keynote address of the March on Washington for Civil Rights.

[4] From the poem, Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening

[5] Ronald Stuart Thomas (1913-2000)

[6] See Luke 16.19-31

[7] From “Judgment Day” (my emendation), R. S. Thomas – Collected Poems 1945-1990 (Phoenix Giant, Orion Publishing Group, London, 1993), page 105