A sermon preached at
Trinity Episcopal Church
in Easton, Pennsylvania
February 3, 2019
The Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany
Almighty and everliving God, we humbly pray that, as your only-begotten Son was presented in the temple, so we may be presented to you with pure and clean hearts by Jesus Christ our Lord; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
“This is the light of revelation to the nations, and the glory of your people, Israel.”
This antiphon comes from St. Meinrad Archabbey in Indiana, the motherhouse of the Swiss-American Congregation of the Order of Saint Benedict. It was used with the Nunc Dimittis, that beautiful canticle taken from the account of the Presentation of the Lord in the Temple. It is a song of praise that the Priest, Simeon, sings, as he holds the baby Jesus in his arms and realizes that God’s promise that he would live to see the Messiah has been fulfilled.
In this song, he tells us that his own eyes have seen the fulfillment of God’s plan for salvation in the person of this child who is God’s light made manifest—both in the Temple (the glory of Israel) and to the gentiles (the light of revelation to the nations).
Our Scriptures, both Hebrew and Christian, use powerful images which speak to us of God’s presence in the world. They remind us that God was present from the very first instant of creation, that God loved all that was created, and that God continues to guide creation to an ultimate goal—a goal which includes us. Even more, God’s plan depends on our involvement as co-creators, as participants, and ultimately as grateful recipients of God’s loving care.
Of all the images, perhaps the most interesting is light. From the very first “let there be light,” through the pillar of fire which led Israel to freedom from slavery through the wilderness, light symbolizes God’s presence in a most powerful way. A light that leads and guides. But also a light which warms, protects and comforts.
Thus, it should come as no surprise to us that light is an equally important image in the Christian scriptures. In fact, I always think of a Trinity of images from the Synoptic Gospels, “light, salt, and yeast.” Really, they are all saying the same thing—that they—and by inference, we—have the power and ability to transform the world.
They also serve to teach us about the significance, value, and importance of Our Lord, Jesus Christ. They give us clues about what his presence in the world means—for the area surrounding his birth (one thinks of Shepherds the field awakened by light and the song of angels), for the whole world (the visitation of the Magi on Epiphany—who were led there by the light of a star), and finally for the People of Israel (The Feast of the Presentation in the Temple). It then follows, that the reality of Christ is most fully present in the light of the Resurrection. And we can not forget the tongues of flame which appear on the heads of the Apostles at Pentecost.
These feasts of Light—Christmas, The Epiphany, The Presentation (also called Candlemas, because it is the day on which the Candles to be used in church and at home are blessed), the Easter Vigil (with the lighting of the new fire and the Paschal Cande, and the three fold proclamation of the “Light of Christ,”) and Pentecost serve as a model and inspiration for us. They remind us of a world of darkness, confusion, and alienation which is pierced and transformed by God’s light. It is the story of salvation—and especially as it is presented in the two-volume history of salvation: The Holy Gospel According to Saint Luke and The Acts of the Apostles—a story told in three phases: the stage of Israel, the stage of Jesus, and the stage of the Church.
It is just as important to remember that the darkness which we encounter in this beautiful story is a metaphor which encompasses all the forces which work against God’s plan.
These are the very realities which are also addressed in our Baptismal Covenant. There, of course, it is framed in a positive light. There we pledge, promise and covenant to work for things which oppose those forces.
But, more and more, I find it imperative to name them. I do so again today, knowing full well that you have often heard me speak them, denounce them, and oppose them: racism, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, Islamophobia and religious bigotry, injustice, oppression, hatred, violence and war.
The light of Christ, the light of the Resurrection, the Light of Pentecost will illumine these evils and reveal them so that–rendered visible, they may be confronted and dis-empowered. It is a time of winter for us. In this time we feel the cold, we fear the dark, we long for the light. In the same way, we cry out for the coming of God’s inclusive kingdom in all its fullness and beauty. We long to be warmed and to dine at a family banquet at which all are welcome, loved, and fed.
There is another beautiful antiphon: Jesus Christ is the light of the World, a light no darkness can extinguish.” This antiphon was often sung at the beginning of Evening Prayer as the candles were lit. It reminded those gathered for prayer that as they gather in darkness to end the day, and then to rest, they will be accompanied through the dark by a light which will never go out or ever be extinguished.
Now you have been patient thus far but may well have wondered what all of this has to do with the readings which we have just heard? I want to suggest to you that one way to look at the image of light is use it as a kind of magnifying glass.
If we have arrived at a stage in life in which our vision is not quite what it once was, we appreciate the value of eyeglasses. They are a kind of specialized magnifying glass-individually created for each of us—to allow us to see things which are small, which are close to us, and which are far away. I suppose that if we became trapped on a desert island and still had them on us (hopefully intact), we might be able to use the old girl scout or boy scout trick of letting the light shine through them to catch straw on fire.
In our Scriptures we speak of a special kind of sight—a kind of magnifying glass—which God gives us to see the world as God sees it—which is called “prophetic vision.” In our readings today, it appears to me that a common theme is that of finding God in unexpected people, places and things. Or to use the earlier metaphor, finding light in places in which we might have thought it was not—and could not be present.
The prophet Jeremiah, points to a common error of perception. We humans have consistently undervalued the young. We are tempted to think that “they don’t know nothing.” We use phrases like “they are inexperienced” and “naïve.” We are often quick to dismiss “youthful enthusiasm.” We realize that life has a way to beat down young dreamers and to cause them abandon those hopes and dreams which they once possessed.
The prophet Jeremiah, though, reminds us that “God is no respecter of persons.” The young, and especially the young also have boundless energy. They have the determination, drive, and—yes, they have the time which is needed to plan and to bring that plan to fruition. We would do well to listen to them, and to learn from them!
I am reminded of that anecdote from Chesterton. When told by an older person that “Youth is wasted on the young,” he replied, “Yes, and wisdom on the old.” Imagine a world full of youthful enthusiasm coupled with wisdom and experience. That is God’s plan.
February is not only the month of Candlemas, and of Ground Hog Day, but also of Valentine’s Day. Our Reading from The First Letter of Saint Paul to the Corinthians is really quite challenging. It speaks of the essence of love. It makes clear that love is not a catchy “Hallmark slogan.” Nor is it a sentimental concept that makes us “feel good” for a few minutes. Love is connected to sacrifice “sacra facere”—literally it is something which has the power to make us holy. Love, though, is not only about “what is in it for me.” it is primarily about doing for others. Love is about social justice, and about caring for those in need. Love is modeled on the example of God who first loved us without asking anything in return. It is modeled on the sacrificial love of Christ who loves us and pours himself out for us. It is modeled in the love which we are invited—and challenged to share with others.
And our Gospel, this day, reminds us of finding God in the here and now. Our Gospel passage today takes up where it left off last Sunday. I want to remind you of something that Father Andrew said last week—something which has stayed with me all week. “We are called to let go of our memories (the past) and of our dreams (the future) and to live in the present. The most radical word that Jesus ever said was ‘today.’”
Jesus shocks his audience by telling them that God is present in the here and now. Not only are they reluctant to hear that, they become so angry that they choose to kill him to silence that message. They recognize that they are being called to let go of all their cherished preconceptions and certainties and to recognize that God’s message and promise is far more inclusive than they thought—or would like to believe.
Why? Because it will mean that they will have to change, to transform and to grow. Because it means that God also loves gentiles, and foreigners—yes, God loves even Greeks and Romans. Imagine that!
The same is true for each of us. What would it mean if I chose to live as a person of light? What would it mean if we chose to be a source of Light in the Lehigh and Delaware Valleys? What would it mean if the Episcopal Church practiced the Way of Love—which our Presiding Bishop is inviting us to do? What would it mean if all the children of Abraham; Jews, Christians and Muslims united to bring God’s light to a cold, and shivering world?
A final thought, this is Black History Month. Yesterday, I was blessed to be able to visit St. John AME Zion Church in Bethlehem. They invited us to their sanctuary and shared with us their denominational history and their congregational history. They also shared with us the story of the African-American Community in Northampton County.
What a lovely afternoon. I learned so much, and can not tell you how truly gracious, hospitable and welcoming they were. I plan to go back to visit—and to worship with them some Sunday (and if they have food, I may be the last one to leave).
I invite you to do something this month to learn about the contributions of black folks to our country and to our county. Learn something from black history, address some important issue like racism, violence against African-Americans, inequitable incarceration, or voter suppression of minorities. Read some work of literature or listen to music or poetry by African-American authors. Check out with the NAACP is doing locally and get involved. Be light. Make a difference. Don’t allow this month to end without having been challenged, and having grown.
Inspired—even impelled–by the love of Christ, we are called to be a light in this world—a light that no darkness will ever extinguish.