The Second Sunday After the Epiphany | January 18, 2015 “The Thread of Prophecy” The Rev. Gabriel LamazaresJanuary 22, 2015
The story of the calling of the prophet Samuel is a favorite of children’s Bible story books. I can remember reading it for the first time while I was waiting to get childhood vaccinations in books of illustrated bible stories that the Jehovah’s witnesses used to leave in doctor’s offices. And it was always this portion of the story that was told, the portion we’ve heard today, along with its take-away mantra, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” I remember being taken by the idea of this disembodied voice speaking in the middle of the night but being mistaken for a known voice.
How do we know when God might be speaking to us? It turns out that the story of Samuel’s early life, and of his mother Hannah and father Elkanah, and the priest Eli and his sons is long and tragic and strange to us. If you want to delve a little deeper, I commend to you the first part of the first book of Samuel before the anointing of David as king. There are battles with the Philistines and plagues and retribution and offerings of gold in the shape of tumors and rats. (The Bible is wondrously strange the deeper you go!)
This was in the time before the first kings of Israel, in the time that judges governed Israel and priests offered sacrifice before there was a Temple in Jerusalem. It turns out that the high priest Eli had unscrupulous sons who were skimming off the sacrifices of the faithful, taking the best meats for themselves.
It is in this context of graft and corruption, where the powers that rule seem to do nothing, that word of God is given to prophets, who speak on God’s behalf. When priests and judges and warriors are silent before injustice, the word of the Lord will not be lost. Instead, it will be given to those on the margins of power to witness to the truth, to the betrayal of God’s dream by the power that be.
That prophetic tradition continued throughout the history of the kingdoms of the people of Israel, and as it is transcribed and canonized the books of the Prophets, continued to critique and cry out in the Diaspora and as an essential thread in the Christian witness, particularly as the prophecies long for the coming of God’s kingdom of peace and and a Messiah to bring all things to their fulfillment.
The New Testament echoes the themes of the Hebrew Scriptures. The Blessed Virgin Mary’s Magnificat echoes the Song of Hannah, Samuel’s mother, in saying that “God raises the poor from the dust and lifts the needy from the ash heap.”
Through the span of thirty centuries, this thread of prophecy runs unbroken wherever the words and stories of the Scriptures come to life. God continues to speak, continues to cast the mighty from their thrones and lift up the lowly.
This weekend, as a country, we celebrate the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr., one of the leaders of the civil rights movement of the 50s and 60s and one of our greatest modern heirs of the prophetic tradition. His passion for justice for African-Americans in this country, beaten down by centuries of oppression and degradation, brought God’s dream to life in his speeches and actions. Dr. King’s dream echoed God’s dream.
But God’s word is not only for the leaders, those out in front. In the last analysis, as we have seen in the civil rights movement, change comes about through the courageous actions of many people, not just one or two. I am certain that there are many whose names we don’t know and may never know who heard God’s call and said, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.”
Because God’s desire for us remains the same. God’s dream for us is undying. And that dream is a vision of a world in which a beloved community extends in all directions, where the dignity of every human being is lifted up, where everyone can live in peace and unafraid.
Recent news has been disheartening and even heart-breaking, showing us how far we still are from those dreams, from Dr. King’s dream and from God’s dream. We still have a long way to go for all God’s children to find a place in a beloved community that lifts us up and brings us home.
For today, the thing to remember is the God may very well be speaking to us in ways we do not recognize. Like Samuel, we may think it is people in our lives, the words of people we admire or fear, the cries of those marginalized and abused. To the voices that call us out of ourselves into a larger dream, it is worth saying, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” Not just to a few special people, but to anyone who will hear the word and do it.And that requires a certain change in posture, a commitment to developing the ability to listen deeply, being open to receiving a message. You would think that God’s call would be unmistakable--you could not miss it! But, as we learn from Samuel, until someone clues us in, we might miss that in the midst of all the torrent of words in the world, there is One speaking whose voice has the power to recreate the world if we could just listen.Download Sermon
Christ’s baptism can easily be sentimentalized. But the classic portrayal of Christ’s baptism in Orthodox iconography is not sentimental. In classic iconography, the river Jordan runs from top to bottom of the icon; Christ is in the water, being baptized by John on the left of the picture. But on the viewer’s right – on the other side of the river – are three angels. The angels are waiting to receive Jesus – to clothe him. However, most commentaries don’t note that the angels are also waiting to accompany Jesus into the wilderness, where they will minister to him after the temptations. And in some icons, the angels look worried. And so does Jesus, who gazes out at something behind the viewer’s shoulder – at something that we cannot see.
We know what that something is. We know what is coming after Jesus’ baptism: the temptation in the wilderness, Jerusalem, death by crucifixion. Jesus’ baptism is a focal point of his life. Excuse the pun, but it is a watershed moment. Jesus’ baptism is the moment when he crosses over. It is the moment when he says Yes to his identity and his future, whatever it may hold. Jesus’ baptism marks the great divide between the time of protection, shelter and preparation and his adult identity.
In chronological time, Scripture tells us (Lk.3:23) that baptism is not the half way point of Jesus’ life. Jesus has had 30 years of life as a private citizen, a regular life, a manageable life. The baptism marks the start of three years of public life and ministry, unmanageable and chaotic, subject to the demands and needs of others, followed by trial and death. 30 years before; baptism; 3 years after.
All of us experience watershed moments, a time when the road forks and we choose. These moments can happen at any age. And they can happen more than once. Sometimes people enter retirement and begin an amazing new chapter in their lives and sense of identity. Sometimes people know very young who they are and they choose to say Yes to their identity and that Yes unfolds in successive chapters.
I don’t believe that Jesus knows the specifics of what lies ahead for him after his baptism, any more than we do. I do believe that this is the moment of resolve when he accepts his own identity as a child of God and says Yes to the path -- wherever it may lead him. Of course, Jesus baptism differs significantly from our own in some aspects. Chiefly, Jesus’ baptism is a continuation and enfolding of the Hebrew tradition into his own messianic ministry. Our baptism is a baptism into Jesus’ own death and Resurrection. But it is just as important that we notice the overlap of our life in God with Jesus’ own path. The dynamics of Jesus’ saying Yes to God’s work, and you and me saying Yes to God’s work are the same.
We are at a watershed moment in our culture. Obviously we see it in race relations. I would say that even this growing awareness can be placed in a larger context. The tsunami question is what will be the relationship between the privileged and the underprivileged and the responsibility of each to the other. We see this question in multiple arenas: education, justice, housing, income inequality.
We are also at a watershed moment, a changing point, at St. Luke’s. We are immersed in the Jordan River. We are saying Yes to what lies on the other side. The vestry and staff have the most exposure to the challenges that this baptismal moment poses on a day-to-day basis. But everyone who considers St. Luke’s their spiritual home needs to share in the awareness that this is a changing moment in our history. Next month is the expected start of construction for the new residential building on the parking lot. This week, as another outward sign of maturing, we started to employ 24 hour security on the block following a series of burglaries of our properties. We are growing up and moving forward. This summer, the school’s expansion will be continuing its forward movement. And the third strategic initiative – the community center – will also be starting to be more fully explored, even as our existing outreach programs are starting to be examined, renewed and revisioned.
Change always looks and feels like chaos at first. And it is OK to be apprehensive at watershed moments. By definition, we are embarking on a future that is new. New questions, new problems to solve for. When it feels more bad than good, I think it is helpful to remember – this is a baptismal moment. We have been laboring for six years – and our predecessors have agonized for even longer – about strategic planning and resources to strengthen our future and expand our mission. Suddenly on May 6, 2014 the residential and school projects popped out the other end of the Landmarks process and we were cleared for take off. I think if the next generation looks back at this decade they might say: All the moving parts of life on the block started moving at once. All the cylinders started firing at once. True enough. But it is the culmination of decades of work -- just as Jesus saying Yes in his baptismal moment was 30 years in the making in his own life.
We might have a wrinkled brow like the iconic angels and an anxious gaze into the future like Jesus. It is OK to be a little apprehensive. What is not OK is to allow fear to make decisions for us about our identity and our future. Which is exactly why we are saying Yes to this baptismal moment, and which is exactly why we are immersed in the Jordan River. We are doing this so that the forces of scarcity and decaying real estate and the latest squeakiest wheel won’t determine our future – God’s call to mission and ministry will be what determines our future. And in this baptismal moment we are saying Yes. We are giving our successors the resources they need so that they can act freely in response to the Holy Spirit’s leading. Because of course, baptism isn’t only about getting in the water. That’s just the beginning. The crowning moment of baptism is the descent of the dove. The high point is when God answers our Yes with a Yes of God’s own. And, as for Jesus so for us – God’s Yes is a word of love and affirmation, a word that gives us the courage to step boldly into the future: You are my beloved. With you I am well pleased.
The Second Sunday after Christmas | Jan. 4th 2015, “A New Nativity Scene” - The Rev. Gabriel LamazaresJanuary 5, 2015
Happy New Year and a happy ten-lords-a-leaping day to you all!
The Christmas season is the last opportunity many of us have to play with dolls. The Nativity Scene is such a ubiquitous custom of the season it’s hard to imagine going through the festive period without seeing at least one. My family had one when I was growing up, made of ceramic. We also had one made of soapstone that we bought at an outdoor market in the volcanic provinces in the west of Panama. There are dozens, if not thousands of variations. The custom originated (as you might learn from the helpful brochures about our own Nativity Scene) with a live Nativity scene, more like our Christmas pageant, organized by St. Francis of Assisi in 1223, to turn the attention of the faithful away from gifts and glitter and towards the humble birth of the Savior in rustic surroundings. Soon, every church in Italy, and then churches all over Europe, then all over the world had their own Nativity Scenes at Christmas.
So, each year, we get to play with dolls and set up the scene. In the middle, we always place Mary, right next to the manger, and Joseph, on the other side of the manger. The Christ child goes in the manger, of course, though when the child appears is a topic of passionate convictions. Those are the pieces without which the scene is not fully constituted. Often, there is an angel with or without a star. Often, there are shepherds (as in Luke’s Gospel). Often, there are wise men on camels (as in Matthew’s Gospel). In many places, we like to move the Wise Men into place little by little as we approach Epiphany.
Then there are the farm animals. And then it starts getting creative. Have you ever noticed other figures appearing in home Nativity Scenes? When I was little, sometimes Luke Skywalker would appear at the edge of the scene or G.I. Joe or Barbie.
Why not? This simple tableau, like sand play therapy, is depicting much more than a historical scene or a teaching tool or invitation to devotion. It’s depicting where salvation happens. We’re recreating where God touches the earth, pitches a tent, and lives among us. The manger with the Divine Child is the center of the world, in a way, the figures gathered around playing their part like planets orbiting around a newborn Sun.
But, as we know from Matthew, all was not sweetness and light. I have often thought that there is a crucial figure missing from the scene. Granted, he wasn’t in Bethlehem, but he is just as much a part of the whole pictures as those gathered. That figure is the King. I propose we keep it indefinite which King the figure is, since Jesus will have trouble with more than one. In keeping with some of the more creative scenes, it could even be a repurposed Darth Vader, standing at the edge of the scene, watching malevolently, prepared to destroy any threat to his own power.
Maybe that sounds a little morbid and disturbing. But where else in this eternal tableau do we come to understand that this wondrous scene filled with so much hope and wonder will cause so much trouble to those in it, and soon! Our Gospel text this morning describes how Joseph was sent dreams of guidance by God in order to save the newborn Messiah from massacre on the orders of King Herod. Within days, Jesus and his parents are on the run, crossing borders, going into exile in a foreign land, the quasi-mythical land of bondage, Egypt.
Without the Evil King to remind us, how are we to remember that this child is in trouble, that his message threatens the powers that be, that the cross on which he will die is not so very far off? This miraculous birth, full of hope and promise, provokes a response from the powers that want to keep things exactly the way they are, through violence and cruelty if necessary.
It is a bit of a different scene, then, isn’t it? In addition to evoking wonder and devotion, I am also moved to admiration, especially of Mary and Joseph, who went through so much fear and foreboding so that the Word could become flesh and dwell among us. And for the wise men, who had to be wise enough to listen to God’s guidance to go home by another way. The scene also evokes sorrow and a fierce desire to protect, as long as we are able.
It almost makes me want to take the Christ child from the manger and put him somewhere I can keep him safe. What if I were to put him inside? Isn’t that what we do when we receive the Eucharist, when we consume the bread and wine become beloved Body and Blood, so that he becomes part of us and we become part of him? Don’t we admit him into the inner room of our souls and enthrone him in our hearts?
And he may very well get us into trouble with the powers that be, with Caesar and Herod and the like. But the rulers of this world shall not prevail against him. Not even death will prevail against him. In him, we realize that God is doing a new thing, recreating the heavens and the earth, lifting up the lowly and filling them with good things. God is giving dreamers dreams and guiding anyone who will listen into a new way of living.
May the Nativity Scenes we see with our eyes be laid out in our hearts where neither moth nor rust can destroy. And may the light of that Divine Child shine through us into every corner of this dark world.
The scene is embedded deep in our culture, a version of it accessible to nearly everyone. A girl, dressed in blue robes, her eyes averted, her face suffused with light. Conversing with an angel, his wings strong and glittering, his voice the sound of many waters. The angel holds a lily in his hand. Maybe a small dove hovers at the edge of the circle. Otherwise, they are alone.
It’s so familiar, it’s hard to see afresh. What does the picture mean?
It reminds me of an ad campaign launched by HSBC Financial Services that had ads in airports, magazines, and the Web. Maybe you’ve seen it: there’s usually a single picture repeated several times. One particularly memorable one has three images of a shaved head from behind. A word appears on each picture. The first says “style.” The second says “soldier.” And the third says “survivor.” Now, what that has to do with banking, I’ll never know. But it’s a clever way of representing the many ways we see things and how our vision is colored or sharpened by what we know or think we know. Which description is right? We’ll never know without more information. And appearances can be deceiving.
So I’d invite us to approach this image of the girl and the angel the same way. Imagine the same image, whichever version pops into your head, repeated three times, side by side.
Without a doubt, the word under the first image is: IMPOSSIBLE. To a world-view that places its trust on what we can perceive with our senses, there are just too many things that are outside of the realm of belief. The angel, the very idea of a virgin conceiving a child, the promise of Davidic kingship that not only never materialized, but instead became a cruel joke as Jerusalem was razed to the ground and the Temple destroyed for the last time. Don’t Jesus’ life and teachings speak for themselves? Why does he need this very special conception and birth? It is a pious story, lovely at best, but not to be pressed on too hard lest it shatter.
The word under the second image is: SUBMISSION. The translation in the New Revised Standard Version is soft and euphemistic in saying ‘servant.’ The most honest translation of the word doule is slave. “Look: I am the Lord’s slave, God’s property. Let it happen to me just as you say.” In the scene, Mary prefigures her son’s prayer in saying, “Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done.” She exemplifies the self-emptying love that characterizes God’s blessed ones. Mary’s entire being is ‘Yes.’ She makes room in herself for the arrival of the Holy Spirit and the quickening of the child. She places her body, her soul, her whole life in the service of the promise of redemption, of freedom for her subjugated people. She is the soul of Advent.
As laudable and true as this interpretation is, thinkers and writers who care deeply for women’s lives and freedom as human beings urge us to caution. There is something of this submission that has been used by sexism to justify women’s powerlessness, women’s secondary roles, woman as vessel rather than agent. So we would do well to apply this interpretation to everyone who has thrown their weight behind the Reign of God, no matter what gender. For all of us who are inspired by her openness, God’s service is perfect freedom.
Here is the third word: COURAGE. Mary is afraid: of the angel, of the future, of the shame of being pregnant outside of marriage, of the destiny of this miracle child and what it will mean for her. Like someone told she’s won the lottery or that she’s been diagnosed with cancer or that her spouse has died (yes, the terrible angel comes in many forms, even today), I’m sure Mary asked herself, “Why me? Isn’t there someone more mature, richer, more worthy, more holy, more...well, MARRIED, at least?” And let’s be clear, in conventional terms, Mary does not win the lotto. She has a child in a manger, raises him as he’s teased for being a mamzer (a bastard), only to have him become an itinerant preacher with no children, wandering the countryside with a band of strangers, disavowing his family, provoking the wrath of the authorities, and getting himself executed for treason. “Why me?” Of course, Mary doesn’t know any of that in that eternal moment with the angel. All she can see is danger and social disapproval and immense promise.
But God has chosen well. She does not shrink. She does not step back. She does not cower or hide away. She does not shrug her shoulders and say ‘whatever.’ She does not beg to be released from this fate. She does not ask for special favors. Instead, she brings all her fierce courage to bear and speaks. She asks a question. And she consents. Not as the daughter of her father. Not as her future husband’s property. She consents as a free woman, standing unadorned as a daughter of Israel before God’s ambassador. She and the Holy Spirit become co-conspirators. “And the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us.”
In the celebrations of the coming season, as in her life, she will step back from center stage, dim next to the brightness of the Divine Child. And that is as it should be. But, just for today, let us pray for her courage, for her faith, for her availability to God’s grace, for the ‘yes’ that makes all things possible.Download Sermon
Yesterday there were landmark protests in Washington DC and around the country. Some of the placards I saw from the coverage of the DC march read: “If you need to ask why I protest, you are the reason” and (held by a young black man): “All I want for Christmas is to matter in America”. This is a watershed season right now as the poison fruit of our collective racism is blossoming forth in mistrust and violence. It is right to stand against police brutality. It is also true that law enforcement officers are expected to do their job in an incredibly fraught and fragile environment that is not all about them. Race relations are a tinder box because the sins of our collective past are coming home to roost. Most police officers are paid so poorly for the very difficult work we ask them to do for us. I was shocked when I checked the pay of police officers recently. And their training is clearly not nearly sufficient for the tasks entrusted to them. None of this exonerates or justifies excessive force or racial bias. It is to say – it is easier to scapegoat a few people than to ask ourselves: how are we part of the problem? Are we providing the resources people need to navigate sensitive complex relationships or are we setting our society up for disaster, for spiraling chaos and riots in the streets?
We are living in a chaotic time in so many ways. Did you see the story a couple of days ago that London airports were brought to a halt by a computer failure? The news showed a map of planes stacked up over London, pointing every which way. Chaos. And real danger. That has to be one of our worst nightmares – a cyber attack that paralyzes basic operations – not just hacking into credit card data but shutting down power grids and basic infrastructure systems; air traffic control.
Earlier this week I was talking with a local store owner about all the empty storefronts on Bleecker Street. It’s not only about astronomical rents. She said: People don’t need a store anymore. (Online retail. It boggles my mind how much you can order online through Amazon alone). And drone delivery is coming. Everything is changing – in business and in life. All of which is to say – it’s not racism alone that is the source of our societal maelstrom today. We are witnessing humanity’s own growing pains. We are witnessing America’s emergence from adolescence and a more-is-more and “what’s yours is mine” creed into something hopefully more mature and more appropriate for the world’s most powerful and wealthiest nation. If someone has less or nothing when I have more, is that OK? Our faith teaches us that the kingdom of God comes only when everyone has enough. Enough freedom, enough justice, enough to eat.
As we witness these protests and growing pains, can we witness to something else as well? I believe we can, as John does. People come out to hear John in the desert, not because John tells them what they want to hear, but because John tells the truth. John points to Jesus. That is his life in a nutshell. We may think of John the Baptist in any number of ways. I hope that one of those ways is as a person of profound inner freedom.
Most of us associate freedom with our outward circumstances. "I would be more free if only...". "If only I lived here, had that relationship, that job, if only I had enough money to quit work and just do what I want. John reminds us that true freedom comes not from outward security but from within. Outward changes may be part of the journey but they are not a substitute for the inner journey. We can be free in a jail cell. (We think of Bonhoeffer and his “Letters and Papers from Prison” or Martin Luther King Jr. in his letter from a Birmingham jail). John anchors his vision and his life in the One he points to and casts a rope to those who are drowning. And we can do the same.
Later in his ministry John will say: Jesus must increase and I must decrease (Jn. 3:30). The world never teaches us that there is a time to increase and a time to decrease, and BOTH the increase and the decrease are holy seasons and within God’s Providence. The world never teaches us that we don't need as much as we often think to live well, but John does. The world says: fill up inner emptiness any how you can. Grasp cyber deals, food, stuff, drugs, parties, twittering, staying so busy you never have to pay attention to what is really going on inside your soul. The world never teaches us that our deserts and emptinesses are Holy Places where God can come to dwell, but John does. God looks at an old woman Elizabeth and an old man Zechariah and God says: My last and greatest prophet, John the Baptizer, will be born to them. Whatever and whoever seems insignificant - too young, too old, too poor, too uneducated, just plain impossible - from that source new life comes forth. God looks at the desert and announces: that is where my highway is going. God looks at our emptiness and says: that is where I will be born. Not in our self-sufficiencies and our successes, but in our shame and fear. And when God comes, our shame and fear is dissolved into love and freedom.
This is the secret of true joy – for us as for John – sharing Christ. We do not have to be Christ, we do not have to have all the answers, we do not have to bring in the kingdom, we are to look for it, point to it, join in with God’s coming and God’s vision as we are able. John witnesses to the light of Christ, and his life reflects that light. This is our offering too, not just in Advent but always. To point to Christ. That is not a small thing. Because the One we point to remains the light of our tumultuous world.