Homily for the Sunday After Epiphany
This past fall, I found myself in a weird time warp, still nicely appreciating summer, when all of a sudden we were talking about Christmas, and now even Christmas seems like a long time ago. As Dr. Seuss said,
“How did it get so late so soon?
It’s night before it’s afternoon.
December is here before it’s June.
My goodness how the time has flewn.
How did it get so late so soon?”
In 2013, people in the Middle East continued to agitate for decent government, the United States saw Barack Obama inaugurated for a second term as president, and Canadians continue to have Stephen Harper, whose claims not to know what’s going on in his own office were supported by the fact that he was busy writing and publishing a book about hockey. On a positive note, Silvio Berlusconi, Geoffrey Wiener, and four corrupt Quebec mayors finally disappeared; unfortunately, Mike Duffy, Pamela Wallin and Rob Ford didn’t. (I’m with Mark Twain, who once said, “Politicians are like diapers – they must be changed often, and for the same reason.”)
In 2013, Quebec proposed a “values charter” that is intended to prevent people wearing religious symbols in public. There was more cheating in sports and numerous acts of terrorism. Bullying continues to be a social scourge, and more beautiful lives were snuffed out by suicide as a direct result, but good people are starting to stand up and challenge the way of violence.
People rallied and learned to work together in the face of numerous storms and floods, as close to home as Calgary. We celebrated a royal birth and baptism; a brave young woman by the name of Malala Yousafzi appeared before the United Nations to appeal for a new kind of world free of prejudice against women; same-sex marriages were legalized in England and Wales; the Roman Catholic Church elected a Pope who seems to take being a Christian seriously, and we lost a modern legend in the person of Nelson Mandela,
We continued to struggle to define (or re-define) the meaning and limits of personal privacy, as several scandals involving phone hacking, wiretapping, computer hacking and illegal sharing of personal information emerged.
Physicists Peter Higgs and Francois Englert won the Nobel Prize in Physics for their discovery of the Higgs boson (otherwise known as the “God Particle”). Other great mysteries were revealed to us as well. In a world of confusing new terminology and technical language like “texting” and “tweeting,” we can be grateful that Miley Cyrus taught us all what “twerking” really means, and in 2013 we finally learned what the fox says (“da-ding ding ding da-ding ding ding ding …”) and according to the song, foxes have quite a lot to say as they dance through the forest.
St John’s began the year 2013 with a conference on spiritual discernment, with author Nancy Reeves as our guest speaker, and part way through the year we began to discern that we might have a future with St Margaret’s of Scotland. That process will continue, and we’ll make a final decision about that on February 2. For us, 2014 looks promising.
What kind of year was it for you? What’s the picture as you see it? Where is your life trending as you move into 2104? As we look back and then forward into a new year, Mother Teresa’s words seem very wise: “Yesterday is gone. Tomorrow has not yet come. We have only today. Let us begin.”
In the Christian tradition, we begin each new year with a celebration of Christ’s baptism and the beginning of his earthly ministry. It’s a good time to reflect on our own sense of purpose and direction, and to consider what kind of difference we are choosing to make in the world around us.
Questions like the following may arise: What’s my life all about? Does my life have a direction? A purpose? Do I feel like I’m doing something worthwhile with my life? Where am I headed?
We might do well to consider a question from the 20th Century poet Mary Oliver: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
Jesus obviously had some rather large questions and decisions to deal with as he contemplated his future and his purpose. For Jesus, the Baptism that John the Baptist was offering apparently revealed and expressed something essential about his purpose, and became a means of declaring what he was truly about, an indication that he was prepared to enter into the mess and confusion of human life and embrace it fully, as if to say, “I am a ‘people person.’” In his Baptism, Jesus teaches us to embrace and enter fully into the one life we have been given, not seeking to rise above it or be somebody else, or by-pass it in some way, but to accept it as the amazing gift that it is.
The moment manages to convey the essentially simple Christian message that in love – in humility – God comes to us, and is with us in the human condition, because in God’s eyes we are not just screw-up’s, failures, ne’er-do-well’s, we are worthwhile, we share the divine image, even if we fail to see it or believe it or act on it.
Christian author CS Lewis said: “Humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less.” The example of Jesus teaches us a great deal about relationships, and how we are to see ourselves in context. In our world we are always encouraged to put ourselves above the community around us, whether it comes to ignoring traffic laws or refusing to vote or opting out of social contracts like manners, honesty, dependability, etc. Even spirituality gets distorted into a preoccupation with individual salvation, disconnected from any sense of the whole, or the concept of God’s love for all people.
John the Baptist represents the tendency to put Jesus up on a pedestal, to keep Jesus separate and special. But the account of the Baptism of Jesus reveals the humility of Jesus in submitting to a ritual that John felt he did not really need. Jesus does not place himself above it all, nor above John. He didn’t arrive at the venue John had created for Baptism and say “Don’t you know who I am?” like some arrogant movie star. He took his place among the other folks. In this way he expressed his solidarity, his identification with other people.
The prophet Isaiah spoke hopefully of the kind of person that God would raise up to bless humankind. On behalf of God, Isaiah says, “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him … He will not cry out 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.” Despite John the Baptist’s predictions and hopes of a fiery reckoning, Jesus does not come with the violence of condemnation and judgement; he comes with gentleness, unobtrusively, and almost anonymously.
For Christians, the Baptism of Jesus is a reminder of the nature of the Christ we believe in and follow. So I think it’s fair to say that for Christians, gentleness, humility and compassion are important Christian virtues, while violence, arrogance, rudeness and hatred of others are not. And the summons of Jesus (as it’s expressed in the Gospel of Matthew) is to love all people, not just a select few (the ones who are just like ourselves); the summons of Jesus is to live in such a way that unites the world. As the disciple Peter would later say, “God shows no partiality.”
The Baptism of Christ teaches us that Jesus rejected the isolation and special status of uniqueness and spiritual stardom – he explicitly indicated that all of his followers could become, and are meant to become, what he is. A few chapters on in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus says to his followers, “You are the light of the world.”
We have just concluded our celebration of Christmas and its focus on the impact of one child upon the entire human race. When we think of a young child we think about what his/her life is going to mean, what kind of impact it might possibly make for good upon the community, the social and physical environment. Will this child being baptized today (Charlie) be another Nelson Mandela? Another Desmond Tutu? Or perhaps another Mike Duffy? Or worse, someone who never is encouraged to explore the full dimensions of his or her humanity.
At Baptism, as at Christmas, we put a baby at the centre of our attention, and we express our hope: that one small life can make – will make – a difference. And in that hope is the future of the world. In the religious realm, people are asking big questions, like “Does Christianity have a future?” For me the question is always simpler and more close at hand. The question for me is more like: What difference will this child’s life make? Or perhaps: What difference am I prepared to make?
The celebration of Epiphany proclaims Jesus as a light to the world but it does more – it reminds us that in turn we are called to “let our light shine in such a way that people see good things happening in our lives and are inspired to turn to God.” So we can look out at others and say “You are a teacher” – and at ourselves and say “I am a teacher” — because we learn something from everyone and everyone learns something from us – in every encounter we are revealing to others what we’re made of, what motivates us. What are you teaching? What does your life have to say? Does your life inspire anyone? Enlighten anyone? Does it give anyone a deeper sense of life’s purpose or meaning?
Baptism was an expression of Jesus’ vocation, and so it is an ideal time for us to speak about our vocation – to consider what direction our life is meant to take. It reminds us to re-examine our own essential purpose, encourages us to reflect on our own lives, and to consider what we are teaching others, and how our lives are informing, guiding, and shaping the lives of those around us.
Let us use this precious moment to claim the possibilities before us and to enter 2014 in a spirit of faith, hope and love.
The Venerable Grant Rodgers+
Isaiah 42:1-9 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. He will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth; and the coastlands wait for his teaching.
Thus says God, the LORD, who created the heavens and stretched them out, who spread out the earth and what comes from it, who gives breath to the people upon it and spirit to those who walk in it: 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. I am the LORD, that is my name; my glory I give to no other, nor my praise to idols.
See, the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare; before they spring forth, I tell you of them.
Acts 10:34-43 Then Peter began to speak to them: “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.
You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ–he is Lord of all. That message spread throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John announced: how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him. We are witnesses to all that he did both in Judea and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; but God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear, not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses, and who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead.He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead. All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”
Matthew 3:13-17 Then 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.”