Exploring the Wilderness

A Clearing Season: An Introspective Approach to Lent

Luke 4:1-13 First Sunday of Lent

Lent begins in the Wilderness.

A couple of years ago, when we first moved to our current house, I couldn’t wait to explore the woods that surrounded our new home. So, on a beautiful spring day, I set out through the national forest to see what I could see. I immersed myself in the beauty of the wilderness that is my backyard. And I was happy! That is, until I realized that I was not really sure how to get back home. I wasn’t lost, no self-respecting man would ever admit being lost; I was simply “turned-around”. And since I didn’t think to bring a compass, finding my way out was a challenge. I followed a couple of old trails, but as I passed the same rock the third time, I decided to institute a new plan of attack. I looked up. By following the sun, I was able to determine east from west and eventually I did come out on Birchwood Road, a mile or so from where I began, but, in the end, the lost was found.

Now, the narrative that we have from Luke’s Gospel today, also has something to say about what we might find when we “explore the wilderness”; not a literal wilderness, like my experience in the Chequamegon, but a wilderness of the soul; a wilderness of self.

Now, if our wilderness experience in any way resembles that of Jesus, then this passage tells us that the wilderness, those places of discomfort and chaos that arise in our lives, are important and valuable and are not to be overlooked. We all tend, I think, to attempt to separate ourselves from discomfort or chaos. And I’m right there with ya. I love logic, routine, and calmness. There are certainly times when an emotional or even a physical distance from chaos is necessary.  But that being said, this wilderness text challenges us to try a different approach. It encourages us to sit in the uncomfortable, chaotic places for as long as possible. Why? Well, because it’s only when we confront the discomfort, when we acknowledge our confusion, and when we recognize the chaos swirling around us, that we can begin to deal with it.  It’s only in the recognition of our dis-ease, that we can begin heal; that we can begin to move back to a place of harmony and balance. “Denial,” as they say, “ain’t just a river in Egypt.”

And that’s where we find ourselves today. Beginning with Ash Wednesday, we’re asked, or perhaps “led by the Spirit” to enter whatever “wilderness” is plaguing us. Now, finding these wilderness places is not all that difficult when we have the courage to look. The best way to find them actually, is to set aside some time, find a space free from distractions, and then sit quietly with God. The very act of sitting quietly can bring whatever wilderness you need to experience to the forefront.[I]

Granted, sometimes finding quiet can be a challenge. In my attempt to begin morning meditation this past Thursday, I was met with a groomed and ready for school Manny who wanted to watch You Tube. Not to mention phone calls, emails, text messages and Facebook Messenger all “dinging” on my phone. The dog needed to go out, the goats and chickens wanted to be fed… My friends, the stuff of life can be a stumbling block to find our wilderness moments.

But it’s not impossible. Time and again, we see Jesus seek-out a secluded place, a place like the wilderness in today’s text, in order to face his challenges and temptations. And his temptations were much-the-same as the temptations we face in our lives. And upon closer observation, we see that the three temptations presented to Jesus all fall into the same category: putting self-need before the needs of others.

I mean, think about these three promises; the promise of a perpetually full belly, of absolute power, and of freedom from all harm. If I had these things my life would be awesome. But, what about the life of the person from whom the bread was taken? What about the vulnerable, voiceless person whose power has been usurped for my pleasure? How about those who remain in harms way in order to guarantee my safety?  Do you see what I’m driving at here? There’s a cause and effect in everything we do, in every decision we make. Our time in the wilderness is meant to help us to discern the outcomes of our decisions and to weigh the consequences.

Here’s an example of what I mean. I saw a news story this past week that broke my heart. It was about the children of the Central African Republic. The Central African Republic is facing one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world because of an on-going civil war. With over 620,000 internally displaced people and 570,000 refugees, one in five Central Africans has fled conflict, leaving both home and land behind. In 2019, an estimated 2.9 million people, including 1.5 million children, two out of every three children in the country, will require humanitarian assistance. Of the 1.9 million people without access to safe water, 950,000 are children, and basic water and sanitation standards are not being met in many sites for displaced persons. Less than half of all children are immunized. In 2019, an estimated 38,000 children under 5 years will suffer from severe acute malnutrition.[ii] And these statistics say nothing about the abduction of young men who are then forced to fight in the war against their will or anything about the daily rape of young girls. This is a real humanitarian crisis.

But I was given a spark of hope by this story because they also presented some success that UNICEF has had in this region. They’ve recently been able, with the help of the United Nations, to distribute these ready-made food packets to children. They taste like peanut butter but are very high in nutrition. The news story ended by showing several children who earlier in the spot were on the brink of starvation but were now responsive and even smiling.

I share this story with you today, because as I reflect upon the wilderness experience that this news story led me through, I can’t help but think about all the distractions, the temptations that blind us to such great suffering.  It’s easy to turn-a-blind eye to places like the Central Africa Republic or South Sudan or Yemen or Syria or any of the other places where people, children, are suffering. It’s far more difficult, I think, to allow ourselves to “suffer-with” those who suffer.

Perhaps the greatest temptation to be avoided is apathy?

As we continue on this Lenten journey and as we explore the wilderness of our minds and lives, my prayer is that we all find our way out, not by using a compass, but by thinking of the other before self.  If all of us could do that, this world would be a little better and it would become more just place for all people.

May it be so for you and for me.

Amen.

[i] Sarah Parsons A Clearing Season (Nashville: Upper Room, 2005) pgs. 13-26

[ii] UNICEF Official Website (www.unicef.org)

Love & Relationship

By Rev. Phil Milam

God is love. When we take up permanent residence in a life of love, we live in God and God lives in us. This way, love has the run of the house, becomes at home and mature in us            -I John 4:17 (MSG)

Willian Slone Coffin once wrote, “What we need to realize is that to love effectively, we must act collectively.” (Credo 23) The author of the First Letter of John provides a foundation for Coffin’s assertion. You see, collective action, by its very nature, requires a certain amount of courage.  When I go-it-alone, I am in control, but it’s a little scary to surrender absolute control to the collective and journey together.

Here’s an example of what I mean. There are two schools of thought when a pastor accepts a call to a new congregation. The first is to say, “make all the changes you can on day one because the honeymoon period is brief.” It’s been my observation that this line of thinking has led to many short pastorates. The second school of thought, however, takes the opposite approach.  It says, “change as little as possible in the first year, instead, use that time to build trust and relationships.” This second approach, relationship building, has enjoyed a far greater success rate than coming in like a whirlwind. But why? Why the disparity?

Well, perhaps the answer to that question goes back to Coffin’s statement, “…to love effectively, we must act collectively.” When we surrender a portion of our control in any relationship whether it’s a personal relationship, or in the work environment, even in church; in any successful relationship there must be some give-and-take; some level of shared responsibility. And the same is true when it come to our relationship with God.

Richard Roar says, “Instead of an Omnipotent Monarch, let’s try what God as Trinity demonstrates as the actual and wondrous shape of the Divine reality, which then replicates itself in us and in “all the array” of creation. Instead of watching life happen from afar and judging it… How about God being inherent in life itself?” (The Divine Dance 36) This understanding of God as relational leads us to conclude that God is known devotionally and not dogmatically, that all life is sacred, or, again in the words of Rohr, that “everything is holy, for those who have learned to see.” (37) My friends, as we continue to progress and grow and deepen our relationship with God, each other, and those beyond our circle, may we too see that everything is finally sacred.

Shalom

Pastor Phil

No matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, you’re welcome here.

 

Astounding Glory

Luke 9:28-36 – Transfiguration Sunday

There was once a thriving monastery in a beautiful forest. It was a very spiritual place, full of devout monks and visitors coming to seek guidance. But the monastery fell on some hard times, which produced a negative attitude within the monks and a lack of spirit that was palpable. The pilgrims became fewer and fewer and there were no longer any young people coming to enter the monastic life. And this trend continued for a long time, until finally, there were only a handful of elderly monks left. It was a dark time in the forest monastery.

The elderly monk’s spirits were lifted, however, was when word would come to them that “the rabbi was walking in the woods.” You see, in the woods near the monastery, there was a small hut that a rabbi had constructed as a place of retreat, and he came from time to time to fast and pray. And the monks knew that they were included in his prayers, so they felt supported, affirmed and loved.

One day, the abbot of the monastery, hearing that the rabbi was walking in the woods, decided to go and see him. And when he reached the little hut, they greeted one another, silently prayed together, and then the abbot began to weep. He poured out his concern for the monastery and for the spiritual health of the monks. Finally, after listening intensively, the rabbi spoke. “You are seeking my guidance and I have only one piece of advice for you. My advice is this. Listen carefully. ‘The Messiah is among you.’”

Well, the abbot returned immediately to the monastery and gathered all the monks and to share the rabbi’s wisdom. “Listen carefully,” the abbot said, ” One of us is the Messiah.” Now, that wasn’t exactly what the rabbi had said, but this message caused them to look at one another in a different light. Is Brother John the messiah? Or Father James? Am I the messiah?

And in the days that followed things began to change. They began to treat one another with a new-found respect because any one of them might be the messiah. And this new sense of esteem and reverence was felt by the few pilgrims who came. Soon the word spread. The young people began to come again, and more and more pilgrims showed up to be blessed by the presence of God among these monks; all because they came to realize that God was among them.[I]

Now, this story reminds me of the Transfiguration narrative for a couple of reasons. First, I think this passage is meant to illustrate for us the paradox of a God who is both mysterious, transcendent, but at the same time, imminent, involved in human life. I mean, think about the elements of this story. There’s a sudden change in Jesus’ appearance, his face and his clothes were suddenly radiant; he was standing there talking with Moses and Elijah, Moses representing the law and Elijah the prophets. And don’t forget about the cloud that shrouded them and the voice of affirmation and direction from God, telling the disciples, and us, to “listen to him.”

I think the mystical elements of this narrative are inviting us to experience a transformation, a change in our hearts and minds. And what’s even more, the Divine affirmation of Christ is intended to instill in us a willingness to affirm others. And that’s the second similarity to the monks. When we listen to God, when we open ourselves to the mystery of the Divine presence, and when we accept others just as they are, for who they are, the astounding glory of God becomes apparent. Thomas Merton once said, “We are living in a world that is absolutely transparent, and God is shining through it all the time.”

But what does this transparency look like?

Well, it’s kind of like the little boy who was riding his wagon down the sidewalk. Suddenly, one of the wheels fell off. The little boy jumped out of the wagon and said, “I’ll be damned!” Now, the minister happened to be walking by, and he said, “Son, you shouldn’t use words like that! Instead, when something happens, just say, ‘Praise the Lord,’ and everything will be all right.” Well, the little boy grumbled and put the wheel back on the wagon and started on down the sidewalk. But about 10 yards down the sidewalk, the wheel fell off again and the little boy said, “Praise the Lord!” And here’s the crazy part! Suddenly, that wheel jumped up off the ground and put itself right back on the wagon. Now, the minister saw it all and exclaimed, “I’ll be damned.”[ii]

This is of course meant to be a humorous illustration of those mysterious moments in life when we become keenly aware of the transparent presence of God. But in our human-ness, like Peter, we sometimes want to bask in the moment; we want to build shrines and stay eternally in the feeling of awe. But you and I both know that we can’t, …or can we?

I don’t know. Perhaps we’re not looking in the right places. Perhaps the mystery and miracle of God is right before our eyes all the time.

My friends, God is in the beauty of nature, in all its glory; God is in those moments of unconditional, tender love we share; God is here, between the lines, when we share our stories and our fragile hopes; and God is here, in our suffering, and in every moment of rescue, restoration, and resurrection.[iii]

As we enter once again this Season of Lent, our shared focus and journey for the next few weeks will revolve around introspection; a deeper look at how God is always present in our lives and in the world. Beginning at the Communion table today, I invite you to open your minds and hearts, and to allow yourselves to become aware of the sacredness of all things, the blessedness of all people, and the intrinsic holiness of the natural world. And, through this Lenten journey, may we all discover a path that leads us closer to the Divine.

May it be so for you and for me. Amen & Amen.

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[i] Cf. Francis Dorff. The Rabbi’s Gift (Charles Duvall, Seeing Things in a New Light) www.Day1.org 2013

[ii] Robert Sims Connections that Count (www.Day1.org) 2004

[iii] Katheryn Matthews Living in Glory (www.ucc.org/samuel) 2019

Love Your Enemies

Luke 6:27-38

“Do to others as you would have them do unto you.” We know these words as the Golden Rule, right? But what you may not know is that they’re not unique to Jesus. Some version of the Golden Rule can be found in the writings of the ancient Greeks; Homer and Seneca and Philo and in virtually every major religion: It’s found in the sacred writings of Hinduism and Judaism, it’s been echoed by the voice of the Buddha and Confucius and Lau Tzu, and it can be found in the Koran, the holy text of Islam. The Golden Rule is a concept that crosses cultural and religious boundries. “Do onto others as you would have them do unto you.” This is the kind of practical wisdom we learned in kindergarten when the teacher told us to treat other people the way we’d like to be treated.

Now, it’s sometimes tempting to try and boil the whole Bible down to one verse like this one. It’s a verse we can understand, and it gives us a foundation upon which we can begin the process of peacemaking; the process of getting along with each other. But unfortunately, it’s not possible to boil the whole of Scripture, or even today’s reading, down to just one verse, even one as awesome and as wise as this one. Because if we pull the Golden Rule out of today’s text as a summary of everything Jesus said, then we’ll miss the deeper message.  In other words, “doing onto others” is predicated upon “loving our enemy.” And, Jesus says, loving our enemy is lived out when we practice that laundry list of seemingly impossible or at least, improbable tasks.  A list that includes turning the other cheek, giving up your shirt along with your coat, praying for someone who’s done you wrong. In our time and in our terminology, we would call this “non-violent resistance.”

Now, we need to pause here for a second and acknowledge the fact that Jesus was speaking to those who were victims rather than victimizers; to those who were oppressed rather than their oppressors. AND this is an important distinction. It’s important because we must understand that Jesus wasn’t calling on victims to roll over and play dead! Turning the other cheek doesn’t mean be quiet and continue taking the abuse. Praying for someone who’s oppressing you doesn’t mean you’re giving them the win. That’s not it at all! Jesus isn’t telling people to remain victims, but instead, to find new ways of resisting evil.

“Love your enemies,” Jesus said. And that, in concert with “do onto others” is the crux of this passage. Loving leads to peace, both inner peace for ourselves and an external peace among tribes and nations. Sharing what you have, both your material goods and of yourself, builds relationships. But it’s a two-sided coin. Violence leads only to more violence. The old adage “if you hit me, I’ll hit you back harder” doesn’t work. It doesn’t work because an even harder, more violent response will be coming your way. “You were taught an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, but I tell you,” Jesus said, “when someone strikes you on the cheek, turn the other one to them also.” Non-violent resistance.

This is the ethic that moved Dr. King to march across that bridge in Alabama, to kneel down in front of water hoses, and to be arrested without returning any of the violence being perpetrated upon him and his followers. Now, many people thought he was crazy. “Only violence can fight violence,” they told him. But the authorities didn’t know what to do with this kind of non-violent resistance. They knew the power of violence and they knew the powerlessness of victims who knew their place, but this was something they hadn’t seen before: victims who refused to be victims, victims who refused to fight back with violence, victims who claimed their place and reshaped the battle completely.[I]

“Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you.”

And I know, these are tough word to wrap our minds around and maybe even tougher to live-out. But when I hear these words from Jesus, I can’t help but remember the words of a grieving mother; grieving for the loss of her son, Matthew. Mathew Shepherd. Do you remember him? Matthew Shepherd was brutally beaten for no other reason than being gay. Two homophobic men beat him over and over again, they tied him to a fence on a country road and left him, bleeding and alone, to die in the freezing night. And by the time someone found him the next morning and got him to the hospital, there was no way to save him. Matthew Shepherd died as hundreds stood in candlelight vigil outside the hospital.

Now, the two men who killed Matthew were arrested, tried, and convicted of a hate crime. Proved guilty of first-degree murder, they were given the death penalty in accordance with the law of the state of Wyoming. But Matthew’s mother came before the judge asking the judge to spare the lives of these guilty men; these men who brutally murdered her son.

I cannot begin to understand what she must have gone through in all the agonizing months leading up to the trial? What mother could sleep with images of her beloved son tied to a fence, beaten and alone through the cold night? What sort of people could do this to another human being? But there she was, pleading for the lives of her son’s killers.[ii]

“Love your enemies,” Jesus said, “do good to those who hate you.”

Matthew’s mother, I would contend, demonstrated a faith that was shaped by a gospel that’s deeper than hatred, stronger than revenge. And that’s the gospel that Jesus would have each of us take out into the world as we continue to be the church.  A gospel of inclusion, of extravagant welcome, of opening our hearts and door and minds to all kinds of new possibilities and people; it’s a gospel that challenges us to think of the “other” before “self” by sharing our lives and our faith and our wealth with those who are lonely or struggling or hungry. It’s a gospel that, on the surface anyway, may not seem very practical, or even probable in our nation’s climate of hate-filled rhetoric and distrust. But, my friends, it’s finally a gospel of love, love of God, love of neighbor, love of the environment, and yes, love of enemy; it’s finally a gospel of love that will change this world.

“Love your enemies,” Jesus said, “do good to those who hate you.”

May it be so for you and for me.

Amen & Amen.

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[i] Barbara K. Lundblad. Simple, But Not So Simple (www.Day1.org) 2001

[ii] Ibid Lundblad.

A Surprising Catch

Luke 5:1-11

Give me a text on “fishing for people” and I will give you fishing jokes! I think it’s the law. Anyway, a priest, a minister, and a rabbi decided to go fishing and to keep things fair each of them agreed to bring something. The priest brought the sandwiches, the minister brought the drinks, and the rabbi brought the bait.  But after only an hour of fishing, they ran out of worms. So, the rabbi said, “no worries, I’ll just go and get some more.” And then he proceeded to step out of the boat, walk across the lake to get more bait. A few minutes later, he returned in the same fashion. Now, the minister couldn’t believe his eyes, but since the priest wasn’t phased at all, he chose to be quiet. Well, wouldn’t you know it, as soon as the rabbi got back, they ran out of food. So, the priest said, “I’ll go and get some more.” And, you know it, he stepped out of the boat, walked across the lake, retrieved some more food from the cooler in the car, and returned to the boat in the same way he had left. Well, the minister was shocked, and to be honest, feeling a bit “spiritually outgunned.” So, when the drinks began to run short, he boldly announced, “I will go and get more.” He then proceeded to step out of the boat and sink straight to the bottom. Now, perhaps feeling a little guilty, the priest turned to the rabbi and said, “do you think we should have told him about the stepping stones?”

That’s my first fishing joke and the other one is this: Yes, I know only two fishing jokes and you’re being blessed with both of them today! A grandpa and his grandson go fishing. On their way down to the river they encounter a fisherman, so the grandpa inquires, “are they bit’in today?” “Are they bit’in!” replies the fisherman, “they’re bit’in so good I had to hide behind a tree to bait my hook!”

Now, you may have noticed that I sometimes like to start my message with a little humor, especially when the text is one that challenges us to leave our comfort zone and strike out into the unknown. This is kind of my way of living-into the words of Mahatma Gandhi when he said, “In a gentle way, you can shake the world.”

“In a gentle way, you can shake the world.”  I think these words encapsulate so well the meaning of today’s text. Jesus, as we just heard, wanted to share the good news with a gathering crowd. So, to be better heard and seen, he borrowed Peter’s fishing boat, and pushed out into the shallow water at the edge of the lake. And from there, he offered his message of reconciliation and renewal; his message of release, recovery, and liberation.

But I think it’s important to pause here for a moment and recall one of the hallmarks of Luke’s writing style. You see, for Luke, when Jesus says something, it’s followed by an action. He doesn’t just “talk the talk” as it were, but he “walks the walk.” And this is present in all the gospels, but I think it’s especially prevalent in Luke and key to understanding Luke’s deeper desire for us to view Jesus through the lens of social justice.

Now, this “fish of people” narrative that we have today is no exception. Jesus pushes out into the lake, gives his address, and then proceeds to offer them, and us, a miracle of abundance. Peter and the boys had been fishing all night and caught nothing. But Jesus tells Peter to go out further and cast their nets. And of course, they catch so many fish that their boat begins to sink. Peter almost had to hide behind a tree to bait his hook!  And Peter is so moved by this miracle, so convinced that he and James and John drop everything and follow Jesus and to fish for people.

Now, that’s wonderful you might say, an inspiring story and the jokes were funny, but what does all this have to do with my life; with our shared journey of faith? How is a teaching about fishing with nets, and catching a bunch of fish, relevant in 2019?

Well, I’m glad you asked. They deeper meaning here seems to dwell in the realm of “leaving everything and following Jesus” I think Luke is challenging us to let go of the idea of “security in the form of the known.” What does that mean? Well, security in the form of the known, sometimes referred to as “our comfort zone”, describes those things that prevent us from growing, from adapting, from changing our thinking in ways that are necessary to shake the world in a gentle way.

Now that being said, security in and of itself isn’t a bad thing. We all want to feel safe, respected, and at ease in our lives and especially in our church. Amen? That’s why things like a “safe-space” and “Open & Affirming” (http://www.ucc.org) polities are so vital to who we are and what we believe.

But if your security is actually fear; fear in disguise, then it really isn’t secure at all. As I’ve said many times and will continue to say, “fear is the opposite of faith.” Fear causes us to withdraw while faith challenges us to expand. Fear attempts to shield us from the “other” while faith calls us to embrace the other. And finally, fear wants the status quo to remain, at any cost; But not faith, faith seeks to shake up the status quo; in a gentle way, faith would have us shake the very foundations of the world.”

But How? How can we gently shake the world?

Well, in response to that question I’ll defer to two wonderful theologians: Parker Palmer and Madeline L’Engle. Palmer says, “In my view, the mission of the church is not to enlarge its membership, not to bring outsiders to accept its terms, but simply to love the world in every possible way–to love the world as God did and does.”[i]   And Madeleine L’Engle supports this position when she says, “We do not draw people to Christ by loudly discrediting what they believe, by telling them how wrong they are and how right we are, but by showing them a light that is so lovely that they want with all their hearts to know the source of it.”[ii]

My friends, the world hungers for the good news and today Jesus challenges each of us to “fish for people” not by telling them that their wrong but by showing them that the Light of love and compassion and gentleness is so lovely that they will, with all their hearts, to know the source of it.

And this is key as we think about evangelism in our context? Evangelism, effectively “fishing for people” can only occur if we’re passionate about the ministry and mission of this church. When we truly have an attitude of inclusion and forgiveness, of grace and wonder, as I believe we do; it’s then that we will naturally want to invite others to come alongside us on this journey of life and faith. It’s kind of like real estate: but instead of location, location, location, it’s invite, invite, invite. And I know, inviting someone share something as personal, as intimate, as one’s spiritual-self and practice of faith; that takes courage. But invitation, even if it takes several attempts, and even if it ultimately goes nowhere, is still worth the risk. “In a gentle way, you can shake the world.”

One final thought. Perhaps the last thing those tired fishermen were expecting was a miraculous showing of God’s abundance right there, at the end of another long day. And the same might be said of our “long-days”; that they hold the possibility of seeing God’s hand at work in our lives and in the world around us. Someone once said that “God still shows up and surprises us, and next thing you know, our lives are changed forever;” the next thing you know, we’re gently shaking the world.[iii]

May it be so for you and for me.

Amen & Amen.

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[i] Parker Palmer. In the Company of Strangers (quote found at www.ucc.org/samuel)

[ii] Madeleine L’Engle. (quote found at www.ucc.org/samuel)

[iii] Katheryn Matthews. Being Surprised (www.ucc.org/samuel) 2019

Prophet on the Edge

Luke 4:21-30

Choosing is an action that’s full of consequences; some intended and some unintended.  Especially when it comes to choosing people.  If you choose someone, you’re passing over or not choosing someone else.

You know, back when I was a kid, this was played out almost every day on the school playground. When it came to choose sides for kickball, two captains would gaze over the crop of perspective kickers and choose the most popular and most athletic kids first. Now, what we learned from this pre-game tradition was that it feels pretty good, rather affirming to be the first chosen for something. It makes you feel special and wanted. It doesn’t, however, feel so good when you’re the last one to be chosen, if you’re chosen at all.

Now, the Bible is full of the language of choice. We can read passage after passage about God choosing a particular people, the descendants of Abraham, to be “God’s people.”  And as the centuries progressed, this gave the Jewish nation a strong sense of being a “peculiar people,” a people chosen and blessed by God. Unfortunately, as many of the prophets have made clear, the Jewish people turned that blessing into privilege, and they thought it would spare them from suffering the consequences of their disobedience to God. It would seem that by Jesus’ day and time, one of the fundamental aspects of Jewish identity, of the Jewish faith, was the belief that they were chosen by God. In their minds, God’s special relationship with them meant that they must be special, and therefore better than the “gentile dogs” (that is, all non-Jewish people).

But like Jesus, the prophets also reminded the Jewish people that the purpose of their calling was not simply privilege, but so that they might be a “light to the nations”.  This theme goes back to the days of the Exodus, when Moses had said that they would be a “priestly kingdom and a holy nation”, a whole nation of people who would speak for God and represent God’s saving purposes in the world.  It goes back even beyond that to the days when Abraham lived in Ur, and God called him for a special purpose.  The purpose was to make Abraham a blessing to all people: “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed”.[i]

Now, I think this is a big part of what’s going on in our Gospel lesson for today.  Jesus knew that the people of Nazareth were jealous of the fact that he had done wondrous things in Capernaum–a city they considered sinful and filled with sinners.  It was a scandal to them that he would share the blessings of God’s Realm with those who were not a part of the “chosen” people. That’s why Jesus gave them two examples of God doing just that; examples of Elijah and Elisha sharing the blessing of God with Gentiles.[ii]  In part, I think Jesus was trying to remind them that God’s Realm of justice, peace, and freedom was not just for a chosen few, but for the whole human family; that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is a God who is concerned about “all the families of the earth”.[iii]  My friends, God does not single anyone out for special attention or blessings. Matthew tells us that God visits sun and the rain upon all people, and the Psalmist reminds us that God’s compassion and care extend to all the people on earth. [iv]

I think this is the first thing that Jesus was trying to teach us through this exchange in the synagogue, and this was the second: Jesus wanted his audience back them, and us still today, to have the courage to “speak truth to power.” Remember, Jesus had fame, he was “the hometown boy who done good” but rather than exploit that power by falling in line with the religious authority and spouting the party line, he chose to risk being tossed off a cliff because of what his hometown religion had become.

Which leads us to an interesting question. How might this challenge to “speak truth to power” translate into our time, our context; how might it inform our worldview?

Well, the most obvious answer to that question ties back into this idea of “refusing to forget.” It’s not enough to simply remember or give lip service to the concept that Jesus came for all people, we must refuse to forget, activity resist the notion that we are somehow specially chosen above all other nations, races, or religions.

Former President Ronald Reagan quoted Isaiah when he famously said, “America is, and always will be, a shining city on a hill.” Now, some people in the years since have taken this quote to mean that we’re a nation chosen above all others, set apart by God. And they have allowed this concept of separation to breed isolationism and a fear of the other; whether the “other” is a refugee or an immigrant, an adherent of the Islamic faith, or a person of color.

But that’s not what President Reagan, or Jesus for that matter, would have us believe. In that same speech, Reagan also said, “You can call it mysticism if you want to, but I have always believed that there was some divine plan that placed this great continent between two oceans to be sought out by those who were possessed of an abiding love of freedom and a special kind of courage.”[v] In other words, President Reagan held that God has blessed us to be a shinning beacon to all who wish to seek freedom; to all who seek to be  liberated from oppression. Somehow that lesson has gotten lost over the years.

But maybe it’s time to rediscover it. Perhaps today, in our context, our call to “speak truth to power” takes the form of welcoming refugees, immigrants, no matter what their religion, ethnicity, or skin-color. And I specifically quoted President Reagan today for a reason. I chose him because his words defy the place we find ourselves as a nation today when it comes to welcoming refugees. You see, this isn’t and conservative vs. progressive thing; it doesn’t matter if you’re a Democrat, or a Republican, or Green Party, or an independent; it’ finally a matter of living-out our covenant with God and humanity as a people of faith. A covenant that challenges us to extend an extravagant welcome to all people, just as Jesus did.

One final thought this morning. I think Al Carmines encapsulates the essence of Jesus’ love for all people in his hymn God of Change and Glory. The refrain from that song goes like this: “Many gifts, one Spirit, one love known in many ways. In our difference is blessing, from diversity we praise one Giver, one Word, one God known in many ways.”[vi]

My friends, as we come to the sacred table today, and as we refuse to forget Jesus and his compassion and grace and love for all people and all creation, may we do so with the confidence that we have been chosen, along with all of humanity, to be God’s hands and feet, heart and voice in this world. And as we leave this place today, may the blessing of the One God, known by many names, go with us.

May it be so. Amen.

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[i] Richard Bauckham, Bible and Mission: Christian Witness in a Postmodern World, 28-41.

[ii] Cf. William Willimon, “Book ‘Em,” The Christian Century (Jan 27, 2004):20, where he points out that this is Jesus’ first sermon, and he “threw the book at them”!

[iii] Cf. Claus Westermann, C, A Continental Commentary: Genesis 12–36, 152: “Where the name of Abraham is spoken in a prayer for blessing, the blessing of Abraham streams forth; it knows no bounds and reaches all the families of the earth.” Cf. also Charles B. Cousar, Galatians, 84 and Richard B. Hays, “The Letter to the Galatians,” The New Interpreter’s Bible XI:278.

[iv] Alan Brehm Chosen (www.thewakingdrreamer.com) 2013.

[v]  Ronald Reagan The Shinning City Upon the Hill, January 25, 1974

[vi]  God of Change and Glory by Al Carmines, New Century Hymnal (Pilgrim Press, 1995)

Extravagant Signs

John 2:1-11

Who doesn’t love a wedding? It’s a time of joy and covenant and fellowship; two lives joining as one. And here’s the coolest part of all. As a pastor, I’m invited to witness the moment when the newly married couple realize for the first time, their married! That, I think, is one of the most joyous moments in life.

But what happens when everything doesn’t go as planned? What happens when the standard advice for the bride to wear “something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue” doesn’t bring good luck? I mean, it’s been my experience that weddings seldom go exactly as planned. So, I’ve decided to tinker around with the old saying a bit: “Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue, if something goes wrong, shrug it off and continue.” Well, it’s a work in progress.

Here are some examples of weddings not going according plan.

First, the screaming child. I officiated a wedding with a friend for his stepdaughter and it was going just as we had rehearsed. All that was left in the ceremony was to light the unity candle, pronounce them married, kiss, and go to the reception. It was all good. But the bride’s three-year-old daughter had other ideas.  While they were lighting the unity candle, she escaped her grandmother’s grasp, made her way up to the altar pushing her way in-between the bride and groom to see what they were doing. The moment, however, didn’t last. Before the unity song ended, she had made her way into the choir loft, and just as the music stopped, she fell, hitting her head with a loud thump, followed by a wail that could be heard for miles.  Now, at this point, the entire wedding stopped. Nobody moved. Finally, I said, “Paul, go pick up your granddaughter. He did and she was quickly taken next door to the parsonage. But by this time the wedding had been at a complete stand still for about five minutes. So, I got everyone back in place, and whispered, “let’s just finish.” At which time, I looked down at my notes, I looked at the bride and then the groom, I look back at my notes, and then said to the assembled crowd, “I can’t believe I have to say this… but… may you home be a sanctuary of peace and tranquility…” Everyone burst out laughing for what seemed like another five minutes.  Finally, I said, “just kiss her already.” Oh, by the way, the little girl was fine, she was more frightened then injured.

Fast-forward now to a few years ago. I was asked to perform a wedding for Becky’s cousin. And, like the previous story, all was going perfectly, that is, until I messed up the bride’s name. Yes, I said the wrong name! You see, the groom’s name was Tony, and he wanted to be called Tony all throughout the ceremony, that is, until the introduction the couple, at which time he wanted me to use his formal name, Anthony. Fair enough. But when the moment came, I was so focused on making sure I said “Anthony” I said, “it is my honor to present to you, Mr. and Mrs. Anthony and Tony Pape.” The funniest part is that no really caught it, except the bride, who insisted I do it over again correctly. Believe me, the family hasn’t let me lived that one down yet.

And then there’s my daughter Brianna’s wedding. This is the final wedding story, I promise. Just as Brianna was about to take my arm and head into the sanctuary to begin her wedding, the power went out. And to say my youngest daughter had a panic attack would be an understatement. I thought her mother and I were going to have to administer CPR there for a while.  But even though it didn’t go exactly as planned, it turned out to be a beautiful ceremony held by candlelight.

Now, I shared all these wedding stories today for a reason. Weddings, like life, don’t always go as planned. Sometimes we bump our heads, or mis-speak, or something beyond our control, like a power outage, can throw our lives into chaos. Whether it’s an illness or an accident, or a silly mistake or words said in anger that we wish desperately we could take back, or some other outside influence; life seldom goes exactly as planned.

So, when this happens; when chaos displaces calm, where do we turn? I don’t know. Perhaps stories like the Wedding at Cana can bring us some reassurance. How? Well, consider the bigger picture here. Remember earlier I said that one of the hallmarks of John’s Gospel is that he invites the reader to enter into the story? Well, it goes even deeper than that. John is inviting us not only to see ourselves in the story but to use the narrative and these deeper connections the assist us when we bump our head, or mis-speak, or the power goes out; John is opening the door for us to invite the Living God to journey with us through this life.

So, what are these deeper connections? Well, first, we’re invited to look for the “extraordinary within the ordinary.” You see, Jesus often takes the ordinary things of life and uses them to demonstrate the most extraordinary aspects of faith. In this case, I think John wants us to understand that contained within even the most basic necessity of life, water, is the potential for the extraordinary.

What might it mean to share a cool drink of water with someone who’s thirsty? I mean, isn’t that an extraordinary thing? Maybe. But what if we were to think bigger? What if we were to share ordinary water, something we have in abundance, with other parts of the world, where water is scarce? What an extraordinary thing it would be if we were to share from our abundance; our time, talent, and treasure; our food, water, and resources with those who have little.

Which leads us naturally into our second deeper connection with this text: abundance. When Jesus changed the water into wine, he didn’t make one cup or even one pitcher; he changed “six stone jars each containing twenty or thirty gallons.” An abundance by any measure. More than enough for everyone at the party. And it wasn’t some screw-top or box kind of wine, it was the finest wine ever.

Now, it’s pretty clear to me that the wine is a metaphor of the Love of God. God’s Love is abundant beyond all measure, there’s more than enough for everyone, and it’s the finest thing we could ever encounter. Bishop John Sprong once said in a sermon that God’s love is like a faucet that’s been left on, filling the sink to overflowing.  And when that overflowing water spills out of the sink and covers the floor, it fills every crack and crevice, it floods every nook and cranny with the water of life. What a wonderful image of abundance; of the abundance of God’s love.

And, my friends, when we hit our head, or mis-speak, or the power goes out, it’s then that these words about God’s abundant love and our calling to bring extraordinary action into the ordinary problems of the world; it’s these things can bring us reassurance; it’s these things that have the potential to bring us back to life.

May it be so. Amen.

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Sources Consulted

Beverly Roberts Gaventa, Mary: Glimpses of the Mother of Jesus, Chapter Four, “Cana and the Cross: The Mother of Jesus in the Gospel of John,” (University of South Carolina Press, 1995).
Craig R. Koester, Symbolism in the Fourth Gospel: Meaning, Mystery, Community (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1995). 
Alyce McKenzie. Wedding Mishaps and the Cross (www.patheos.com) 2013
John Sprong sermon found in Living the Questions: The Wisdom of Progressive Theology. Jeff Procter-Murphy and David Felten (Harper One 2012)

 

Good News, Good Ways

Luke 4:14-21 The Foundation and Application of the Ministry and Mission of Christ 

A movie came out a number of years ago called “The Kingdom of Heaven” Now, this movie was set during the second Crusade and as the Christian forces had retaken Jerusalem. But the rub in this story is that the Christians are divided. On the one hand, some people seek to maintain a fragile but stable peace with the Muslims by sharing the various holy places that are sacred to all religions. On the other hand, however, there are the Christian zealots who are bent on destroying all the Muslims, convinced not only that it’s their duty as Christians, but also that victory is guaranteed. Their slogan is “God wills it.” God wills the indiscriminate slaughter of thousands of people whose only crime was that they practiced another religion?

Now, I’m not sure what it is about the nature of religion that seems to always make people think in those terms. Why those who belong to the “right” religion believe that they’re the chosen ones, and those who belong to other religions are condemned to eternal damnation? What is it about religion that breeds exclusivity, an “us versus them” mentality, rather than inclusion or at the very least, coexistence?

Now, the “religious” people of Jesus day, the ones who were under the law and subject to the Temple system, thought that way too. When Jesus preached his inaugural sermon in that Nazarian synagogue, the folks initially responded with proud approval for the “local boy” made good. But Jesus knew that they were missing the point, and so he made it clear: God’s grace is for everyone, everywhere, not just for a select group. As one contemporary theologian put it, Jesus “threw the book at them”[i] by citing examples from Hebrew Scripture; stories from their own Bible about how the prophets Elijah and Elisha went to and blessed outsiders, gentiles, people who existed outside the Temple system. And, as we heard in today’s reading, they tried to kill him.

But why the sudden change of heart?  How did Jesus go from hometown hero to public enemy number one in a single day?

Well, what scandalized the “righteous” people of Nazareth was the extravagant way in which Jesus offered God’s grace to everyone. You see, the religious people of his day expected God’s blessings for themselves. They believed they had earned these blessings through personal piety and a strict adherence to the letter of law. They were convinced that they deserved God’s grace, while the “sinners” deserved punishment. But Jesus came along offering God’s blessings indiscriminately to everyone. It’s hard to imagine anything more scandalous in Jesus’ day.

Now, we might be tempted to think that we’ve moved beyond all that. But the reality is, not much has changed. I’m often amazed by the way people respond when they hear for the first time about the Bible’s hope for all people to be redeemed. The typical response is, “If everyone is going to be saved, why should we go to church?” As if salvation is based upon some kinda points system.

You know, I heard some wise words this week about salvation that I’ll share with you. When asked about the nature of salvation, in other words, who’s in and who’s out, this wonderful, gentile soul wouldn’t respond with a Bible lesson or a defense of his theological position; but instead, he would simply say, “My hope is that God’s grace is big enough to include everyone.”

“God’s grace is big enough to include everyone.” I think part of the problem is that we get confused regarding who salvation is about. It’s not primarily about us making the right choices or believing all the right things. In a very real sense, salvation isn’t about us at all! It’s about God. It’s about God’s love for all creation. It’s about God’s desire for all of humanity to coexist in harmony, justice, and peace. And this, my friends, is the very nature of grace. The unconditional, unearned, always available to every person, Grace of God[ii]

And I know, in our culture, and especially the Christian faith that we so dearly love, God’s grace comes with some challenges. First, Grace challenges us to embrace the essence, the very core of Jesus’ mission and ministry, and come to realize that we are not saved apart from one another, but rather, that the Good News of salvation exists for all people. [iii] That’s the first challenge and the second is this: Grace finally isn’t a stagnate thing; it doesn’t exist in a vacuum; and once we’ve embraced and indwelled the universal nature of God’s grace, it’s then that grace is revealed in us and shared through us, as we reach out and tend to one another’s needs. In other words, the Good News leads to Good Ways.

So, what might be some examples of “Good Ways?” Well, consider three of the verbs that Jesus uses to proclaim the Good News in his proclamation about the direction of his entire mission and ministry: Release, Recovery, and Liberation. How might these words of hope be present in our world today?

Well, as you all know, in our nation and across the globe, we are a deeply divided people. We are divided in how we think about and respond to the plight of refugees, how we resolve the on-going violence and poverty we see around us, and as to the intrinsic worth and value of people of color. And as a result of this division, our government is shut down and people are suffering. And they’re suffering primarily because of the disfunction and distrust, the deception and fear coming from the very top level of our government. Indeed, the way ahead seems very dark and it seem unlikely that anything can change in this cultural climate.

But there is hope. There’s hope if we take seriously this idea of the Good News leading to Good Ways. What if, beginning with us, grace were to replace the disfunction cause by fear and distrust? What if we were to view national and world problems through the lens of release, recovery, and liberation instead of self-interest?

I submit, that even though Jesus’ words are ancient, and even though they originated from a culture that was very, very different from our own, they still contain a central and undeniable Truth. The Truth of God’s universal and unconditional grace.  And it’s this Truth that will set us free. This inherent Biblical Truth has the potential to turn the tide; to change hearts and minds. The Truth that salvation is for all people, including the poor, the marginalized, and those on the outside looking in. The Truth that God’s grace is big enough to include people from every nation, from every race, and from every life circumstance; including those deemed unworthy or un-savable by some caiming to follow Christ. My friends, the Truth is that God seeks to bring humanity release from the captivity of ignorance and recovery from spiritual blindness. The spiritual blindness that leads to things like bullying or domination or war, recovery from the spiritual blindness of things like fundamentalism or racism, or sexism, or whatever “isms” people can concoct. And finally, that God seeks to liberate all people from these injustices.

Friends, as we move forward and as we progress as a people, these are the priorities we must embrace. We are invited to “proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” right now, here in this place, through acts of kindness, gentleness, and yet, grace. This is the Good News! The Good News that hopefully will lead all of us, and all of humanity, to practice Good Ways.

May it be so for you and for me. Amen.

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[i] William Willimon, “Book ‘Em,” The Christian Century (January 27, 2004), pg. 20

[ii] Alan Brehm Prodigal Grace (www.thewakingdreamer.blogspot.com) 2007

[iii] Nancy Rockwell Jesus’ Agenda (www.patheos.com) 2016

Affirmed by Love

Luke 3:15-17, 21-22 –  Baptism of Jesus Sunday

In April of 2007 an article appeared in the Washington Post, which earned its author, Gene Weingarten, a Pulitzer Prize. The story went like this. “By most measures,” Weingarten wrote, “he was nondescript: a youngish white man in jeans, a long-sleeved T-shirt and a Washington Nationals baseball cap. From a small case, he removed a violin. Placing the open case at his feet, he shrewdly threw in a few dollars and pocket change as seed money and began to play. It was about 8 a.m. on Friday, January 12, the middle of the morning rush hour. In the next 45 minutes, as the violinist performed six classical pieces and somewhere in the neighborhood of 1,000 people passed by.

Now, the scene that Weingarten has painted thus far is one that might be seen in any urban train station. But the twist in the story is this. The man playing that morning wasn’t just some random street performer nor was he a homeless person trying to survive. The majority of the people walking past that morning didn’t know it, but the fiddler was actually Joshua Bell, one of the finest classical musicians in the world, playing some of the most elegant music ever written, on one of the most valuable violins ever made.

So, what happened? Well, several people stopped and paid quite a bit of attention; one child managed to delay his mother for only 3 seconds; Joshua Bell was recognized by a woman who couldn’t believe her good fortune and waited around until Bell’s magnificent performance was over to introduce herself. And for his virtuoso performance Joshua Bell earned a grand total of $52.17 that day. But the thing that strikes me about this experiment in human behavior, is how many people just passed on by, never even noticing some of the greatest music they would even have the chance to hear. [i]

And I get the impression that something similar has happens when we think about baptism; especially the baptism of Jesus. The details, as they are shared by the gospel-story-teller Luke, are pretty incredible, but sometimes I think we miss the depth of their meaning for our lives and our faith. So, with this in mind, let’s look a little deeper into this important text. Let’s stop in the metaphorical metro station for a moment and absorb the beautiful music that is Jesus’ baptism.

After living in total obscurity his entire life, in his late twenties or early thirties Jesus left his family in Nazareth and burst onto the public scene by joining the movement of his eccentric cousin John. Some scholars have suggested that John was part of the Jewish sect called the Essenes. The Essenes were separatists, part of a movement who lived in the wilderness, away from everyone else, to keep themselves pure. And it was the pursuit of this purity that lead them to opposed the religious authorities of the day and the temple in Jerusalem. So, it’s important to understand that John the Baptist was most definitely an outsider.[ii]  And by joining John’s fringe movement, what Marcus Borg called a movement of “protest and renewal,” Jesus found himself also outside the mainstream of the Jewish Temple structure.[iii]

And this is the first of two points of connection that we have with this text; Jesus’s baptism by John identified him with what Luke describes as “all the people.” You see, the Temple system worked really well for the wealthy and the connected. Jesus however saw his ministry as being with and for all the people; especially the poor, the vulnerable, the outsider. So, Jesus was baptized not because he wanted his sins to be washed away, but so he could be with all the broken and hurting people who had flocked to the Jordan River. And this is key for us today. By wading into the water with them Jesus took his place beside us and among us. With his baptism, Jesus openly and decisively declared that he stands shoulder to shoulder with me in my fears and anxieties.

That’s the first movement of this beautiful Aria we’re listening to today, and the second is this: Jesus’s baptismal compassion for and solidarity with all of humanity was vividly and Divinely confirmed. Luke writes, “When everyone was being baptized, Jesus also was baptized. While he was praying, heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit came down on him in bodily form like a dove. And there was a voice from heaven: ‘You are my Son, whom I dearly love; in you I find happiness.’”

And, my friends, our Still Speaking God continues to say the same thing to us. Think about that for a minute. Think about the life-changing power contained within these words. God’s loving affirmation to Jesus, to us, has the potential to transform the way we think about and live-out our baptism. “You are my child,” God says, “whom I dearly love; in you I find happiness.”

Perhaps we if we view our baptism as an affirmation of love, then we will begin to view our relationships with others through that same lens. Perhaps if we not only hear but indwell God’s affirmation we will begin to say and demonstrate these same words in our lives. Victor Hugo once said, “What a grand thing it is to be loved! What a grander thing still, to love!”

My friends, Baptism finally doesn’t end at the font, it’s only a beginning; a beginning of our covenant with God and each other. A covenant that meant to be lived out within the church community and beyond; it’s meant to be shared with people who think and act and believe as we do, and with those who do not; and finally, baptism, this affirmation of God’s love, is a precursor to peace.

One final thought this morning. The second author in the book of Isaiah writes that God says to each of us, “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; the rivers shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.”

As we consider the waters of baptism today, as we endure the fires of life, as we feel the wind of the Spirit, and as we pause, if just for a moment, to listen to the beautiful music of our baptisms, we can be assured that God is near. Just as God was near Jesus as he stood there in the River Jordan, with so much ministry and mission, healing and teaching still ahead of him. And as Jesus moved ahead through it all, step by step, he knew that he was God’s Beloved Child.

My friends, as you go from this place today, and continue to be God’s child, loved and loving, cared for and compassionate to others; God’s words to Jesus echo across time and space, falling upon our ears today: “You are my child,” God says, “My child, whom I dearly love; in you I find happiness”![iv]

May it be so for you and for me. Amen.

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[i] Dawn Hutchings Recognizing the Sacred in and Beyond the Stories We Tell: The Baptism of Jesus (www.progressivechristianity.org) 2016

[ii] The Baptism of Jesus: A Vision and a Voice (www.journeywithjesus.net) 2007

[iii] Cf. Marcus Borg in several books and articles.

[iv] Katheryn Matthews Remembering God’s Promises (www.ucc.org/samuel) 2019

The Light

Isaiah 60:1-6 – Epiphany of the Lord

When my three oldest children were much younger, we took them to the Cave of the Mounds in the Southwestern part of the state. And while it was fascinating to look at all the cave structures, the stalactites and stalagmites, and the rivers of sediment that had collected from centuries of dripping water; the really memorable part for me, was when the tour guide turned off the lights. You see, when you turn off the lights in a cave, you experience absolute darkness; the total and complete absence of light. And I remember that it was a bit unnerving. Not that I’m scared of the dark, but because I had three kids in raincoats squeezing the life out of me until the light came back on.

Absolute Darkness. That’s where the discovery of Light must begin; in complete and utter darkness. So, if the complete absence of light is the first step, what’s the second? Shadows.

The Greek philosopher Plato, in The Republic, offers us a glimpse into the shadow world by taking us on a mental journey deep into the earth; into a cave. Plato’s Allegory of the Cave written in 517 BCE and it’s probably his best-known story. Remember now, Platonic philosophy is chiefly concerned with how people acquire knowledge about beauty, justice, and morality, something Plato called “the good.” So, bearing this in mind, let’ look at the story.

The allegory comes to us as a dialogue, a conversation between Socrates and his student. Socrates tells his student to imagine people living in a great underground cave, which is only open to the outside at the end of a steep and difficult ascent. Most of the people in the cave are prisoners chained facing the back wall of the cave so that they can neither move nor turn their heads. A great fire burns behind them, and all the prisoners can see are the shadows playing on the wall in front of them: They have been chained in that position all their lives. There are others in the cave, carrying objects, but all the prisoners can see of them is their shadows. Socrates then describes the difficulties a prisoner might have adapting to being freed. When he sees that there are solid objects in the cave, not just shadows, he is confused. Instructors can tell him that what he saw before was an illusion, but at first, he’ll assume his shadow life was reality.[I]

But does all this have to do with Isaiah and the Light of Epiphany?

Well, today, in our context, I believe we can look at the Allegory of the Cave and the absolute darkness of my experience in the Cave of the Mounds with fresh eyes. Perhaps we can combine these two stories and create a metaphor for we might come to understand the nature of God.

What do I mean? Well, as humanity evolved and began to become self-aware, and as we started move beyond just surviving another day, we started asking ourselves the big questions. Big questions like: Where did we come from? Why are we here? Why do bad things happen? Where do we go when we die? Metaphorically, this was the move from absolute darkness to watching shadows dance on a wall. And this is where incarnation comes into play. I mean, God couldn’t let us keep believing that the shadows were reality. So, God, in human form, came to lead us symbolically into the light of day; to glimpse or grasp, if just a little bit, the nature of the Divine. And the life and teachings, the healing and miracles, the compassion and the grace that Jesus displayed over and over again in the gospels, this is Light that we are invited to enter and to share.

Maybe think of it like this. We often say that Jesus is the Light of the World, right?  Do you remember the blessing and commission on Christmas Eve? I said, “Let us go forth bearing the Light of Christ in our hearts and let is shine in the world.” I used that commission because Scripture challenges each of us not only to see the Light, but to be light.  My friends, we are invited to be a light in the darkness and shadows of this world. That’s the meaning behind Epiphany, and perhaps Isaiah’s words. Maybe they provide us with an opportunity to explore this invitation. An exploration that’s affirmed by Isaiah’s first words in this passage: “Arise. Shine. Your light has come!”

But Isaiah doesn’t stop there. There’s a second, implied imperative here. Let’s look at the next lines of this text again. “Though darkness covers the earth and gloom the nations, the Lord will shine upon you; God’s glory will appear over you. Nations will come to your light and kings to your dawning radiance.”

My friends, as we move from the darkness that covers the earth and emerge from the shadowy gloom that covers the nations; as we move into the Light of Christ, I’m interested in this concept of “nations.” Perhaps Isaiah’s “nations” serve as a second invitation to us from this ancient text. It’s a calling that transcends time. It’s inviting us to look beyond ourselves, our borders, our faith tradition, and reach out to all people with the Light of Christ?

And this is important. It’s important because this is how we are called to “live-out” our bit of light in a pluralistic world. You see, it’s through sharing the Light of Christ with all nations and all people that we can, someday, obtain Peace. Peace is the frist objective here. Not the darkness of isolationism nor the shadows of rhetoric, but actual peace; peace around and with us. But here’s the rub.  Peace cannot be only for a few, or those who perceive themselves as “chosen.” Peace, a real and lasting peace can only be enjoyed if everyone is included.

One final thought this morning. In 1969 Jim Strathdee, a songwriter and theologian, wrote a hymn in response to a Christmas poem by Howard Thurman. I would like to leave you today with the words of the refrain from that hymn because they illustrate so poignantly the meaning of Epiphany.

“I am the light of the world. You people come and follow me. If you follow and love, you’ll learn the mystery of what you were meant to do and be”

My friends, as we leave this place today and as we continue our collective journey from darkness into the Light, may we too discover the mystery of what we were meant to do and be; and along the way, may we encounter the peace that God intends for all the earth.

This is my prayer.

This is my hope.

May it be so.

Amen & Amen.

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[i] There are multiple sources found at www.thoughtco.com from a post by N.S. Gill

Buckle S. 2007. Descartes, Plato and the Cave. Philosophy 82(320):301-337.

Juge C. 2009. The Road to the Sun They Cannot See: Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, Oblivion, and Guidance in Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road”. The Cormac McCarthy Journal 7(1):16-30.

Ursic M, and Louth A. 1998. The Allegory of the Cave: Transcendence in Platonism and Christianity. Hermathena 165:85-107.