Sermon: Sunday, January 3, 2016: Epiphany of Our Lord (transferred)

Texts: Isaiah 60:1-6  +  Psalm 72:1-7  +  Ephesians 3:1-12  +  Matthew 2:1-12

It’s been a fortnight since the winter solstice, the longest night. It’s been two full weeks of lengthening days and diminishing nights. The light that shines in the darkness has once again turned the tide, has not been overcome.

Does-blue-light-really-affect-your-sleepIt’s a sign of the times that when I think about a light in the darkness, the first thing that comes to my mind is the way my bedroom looks in the middle of the night when I press the home button on my phone to get a little light so that I don’t wake Kerry up. I can see the outline of all the objects in the room, but not their color. The pale blue light of the screen renders everything in a barely pastel monochrome, a black-and-white picture with a thin wash of sky, but there is no peripheral vision. Where I point the phone I seen the edges of a dresser or a door, but everything else stays black.

The facts of our bedroom are exactly the same in the dark as in the light. The headboard is against the wall, the dresser is next to the closet, the radiator is in the corner. But in the dark I am still five years old, and sometimes when I wake up in the middle of the night my dreaming mind is still driving so I see shadows in the hallway and imagine that someone has broken into our home. I reach out for the phone next to the bed and touch the home button and shine the light around and I can remember what the apartment feels like when there’s food on the table and voices in the living room. A benign reality.

I’m curious about the darkness in your life, and about the light. It is that time of year when many feel the weight of the long nights in every muscle of their bodies, when sleeping and waking don’t feel all that different. For some, the time just after the holidays is filled with resentment or regret, the things said and left unsaid as the family gathered casting a long shadow over the first days of the new year. We know that the past few months in particular have been filled with grief and loss for so many members of our community, and we also remember that each of us carries griefs and losses that we’ve not yet shared. So I wonder about the darkness in your lives, and about the light.

The reading from Isaiah assigned to the festival of Epiphany — which is actually a fixed date on the calendar (January 6), but we’ve transferred to this morning so that we celebrate it together as we transition from the season of waiting and fulfillment to the season of revelation and wonder — begins, “Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.” (Isa. 60:1) The tiny lights we held in our hands on Christmas Eve have matured into a full blown dawn, foreshadowing the morning light at the tomb on Easter Day. “Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning.” (Ps. 30:5) Reading on we hear the prophet imagine a day when “Nations shall come to your light, and rulers to the brightness of your dawn … They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord.” (Isa. 60:3,6)

Because we stop reading there, and pair these verses with the story of the magi coming to witness the birth of Jesus, we reduce the power of the prophet’s voice to mere prediction. If we were to read on, past the end of the assigned verses, we would hear promises of gifts far better than gold and frankincense, the kinds of gifts we have been praying for here in Chicago in the wake of report after report of senseless deaths in our streets:

“The descendants of those who oppressed you shall come bending low to you, and all who despised you shall bow down at your feet; they shall call you the City of the Lord, the Zion of the Holy One of Israel … I shall appoint Peace as your overseer and Righteousness as your taskmaster. Violence shall no more be heard in your land, devastation or destruction within your borders; you shall call your walls Salvation, and your gates Paradise.” (Isa. 60:14,17b-18)

ct-met-aj-1-foot-patrol-0507-jpg-20130506Can you imagine a city where Peace patrolled at night, and Righteousness governed by day? Can you imagine a Chicago where violence was unheard of, a city not subdivided into North and South and West — but united by a common salvation, whose neighborhoods were a living paradise?

In an opinion piece entitled “Dear White America,” written for the New York Times on Christmas Eve last week, George Yancey (a professor of philosophy at Emory University in Atlanta) wrote about the urgency of love as a response to the rising tide of racism in the United States today. It’s a beautiful and challenging essay that he describes as a gift, though reminding us that “some gifts can be heavy to bear.” This is how his letter to White America ends:

“If you have young children, before you fall off to sleep tonight, I want you to hold your child. Touch your child’s face. Smell your child’s hair. Count the fingers on your child’s hand. See the miracle that is your child. And then, with as much vision as you can muster, I want you to imagine that your child is black.”

The word epiphany is connected to the concept of revelation. Over time we have come to use it to signify an experience of insight, that moment when the lights turn on and things sensed in the dark are finally seen in a new way. Reality has not changed, but our experience of it is entirely new.

That is what is happening in this story from the gospel of Matthew in which the rich and powerful prove their wisdom by bringing all they hold precious and gladly giving it away in the presence of the infant Jesus. Epiphany is God’s love letter to a violent world, a heavy gift to bear, in which God’s declares solidarity with all who are oppressed. On the day of Jesus’ birth God declared, “I want you to imagine that I am small, and poor, and Jewish.” Today we might remember of Jesus, “I want you to imagine that I am Palestinian. I am a refugee.”

But anyone might take this story and make it their own, because as the dawn rises the light also spreads, and the news that was good for some people has in time become good for all people. You may hear in the story of the Epiphany, “Imagine I am a woman. I am a survivor. I am undocumented.” The epiphany is that your story is God’s story too.

When the night terrors become too much to bear, and we reach out to press the home button, we realize that God has come as an infant so that we might finally believe that God has come for us, as small and frail and insignificant as we sometimes, or always, feel.

So we celebrate Epiphany this morning, three days before the actual festival, which is fine by me because I think we could use our revelations sooner rather than later and I long to live in a city of Peace and Righteousness. And you, too, however small the light that burns inside of you: trust that it has been growing, the dawn has come, the days are lengthening, and the future is brighter than our expectations for it.

Arise, shine, for your light has come.



Sermon: Sunday, January 4, 2015: Epiphany of the Lord (transferred)

Texts: Isaiah 60:1-6  +  Psalm 72:1-7,10-14  +  Ephesians 3:1-12  +  Matthew 2:1-12

A few years ago on one of his trips to Chicago to hang out with me and Kerry, we took my dad to the Adler Planetarium. I hadn’t been to a planetarium since childhood, and didn’t know entirely what to expect aside from a memory of a darkened auditorium and an old-fashioned globe casting pin-prick maps of constellations in the sky against the inside of a half-dome. What we found instead was a state-of-the-art museum dedicated to educating the public about humanity’s explorations into space and time.

_DSC5778One exhibit in particular has stuck in my mind. It was a 3D film about the birth of the universe, the so-called big bang, and the rapid expansion that has followed ever since. Using images taken from deep in space by the Hubble telescope, the film gave me a glimmer of understanding of the size and scope of the known universe. It showed a small section of the night sky as we see it here in Chicago and zoomed in reveal a region of spacetime containing hundreds of thousands of galaxies and millions of stars all racing away from the center of the universe as it continues to expand at an unimaginable rate. As the film returned to the familiar first-person perspective of a person standing on the shore of Lake Michigan staring up into the night sky I felt myself awed and unsettled. The universe is vast and unknowable, and we are smaller than specks of dust on a tiny planet circling a single sun in a galaxy that is but one among billions.

The night sky we look at is virtually the same as the sky our ancestors looked at two thousand years ago, but our perspective is radically different. They lived with a cosmology that imagined the world to be flat, with waters held back beyond the sky by a dome high in heavens and resting upon other waters deep below and around the earth. They thought the stars were finite and fixed, and that they narrated the exploits of humanity’s course throughout the ages. Essentially, their world was much smaller than ours. The answers they proposed solved problems whose very premises no longer make sense to us, who now implicitly trust in a universe defined by laws of gravity and relativity articulated over the last few centuries and built into every facet of our lives from satellite-assisted global navigation systems to precision time-keeping. Our ancestors would barely recognize us as members of the same species, and when we consider what that means we find them and their stories equally as foreign.

We, then, are like the wise men from the East described in Matthew’s gospel who arrive at the scene of Jesus’ birth using foreign technology and alien religious practices to make their way to the vast and limitless God who takes on particularity in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, born at a moment in history, in space and time. We have to slow ourselves down a bit to hear it, since the story has become so familiar after two thousand years, but to its first audience the story of foreigners following a star in the heavens was not a story about following traditions, but breaking them. To us, the wise men and their star are figures carved in alabaster in the crèche making their way toward the manger year after year, printed on calendars and surrounded by legends. To the first-century Jews who were Matthew’s audience, they were foreigners who did not know Israel’s stories, Israel’s prophets, Israel’s God. When they arrive, they do not do as Mary does in Luke’s gospel, they do not quote Israel’s scripture to interpret Israel’s present. Instead they rely on a foreign and foreclosed source of knowledge: the stars. Moses taught,

When you come into the land that the Lord your God is giving you, you must not learn to imitate the abhorrent practices of those nations. No one shall be found among you who … practices divination, or is a soothsayer, or an augur … (Deut. 18:9-10)

And the prophet Isaiah dismissed the power of wisdom found outside Israel’s traditions, saying,

You are wearied with your many consultations; let those who study the heavens stand up and save you, those who gaze at the stars, and at each new moon predict what shall befall you. See, they are like stubble, the fire consumes them; they cannot deliver themselves from the power of the flame. No coal for warming themselves is this, no fire to sit before! (Isa. 47:13-14)

So it comes as a surprise when Matthew, whose gospel is so thoroughly oriented toward Jewish tradition and who presents Jesus as a new kind of Moses, introduces these three wise foreigners who make their way toward this incarnation of God by means of their own native wisdom and traditions.

For centuries the church has told this story as one of triumph, to say that from his very birth people of every nation flocked to Jesus as the definitive incarnation of God in human history. Indeed, there is a theme established by this story in Matthew that will be developed throughout that gospel where those closest to Jesus fail to recognize who he is as those outside the community, and even demons, immediately recognize him as the Son of God.  From there it was only a small leap for the church to begin to imagine itself as the Holy Family, as Mary and Joseph receiving the gifts and recognition of outsiders from around the known world who were coming to faith in God through Christ Jesus. In this mode, we often heard this story preached and taught as one about evangelism, that God welcomes into God’s house people from every nation, bringing every kind of gift.

I think we’re living in a different era however. As the church struggles with the birthing pangs that are delivering it into a new station in society, ushering it into a world where it is established not at the center of mass culture but on its margins, this story takes on a new significance for all of us as we see ourselves in the role of the wise people from different and distant lands, feeling our way forward with sources of knowledge and revelation previously discounted, even disrespected, but now seen to be powerfully accurate in guiding us toward God’s manifestation in this day and age.

We experience this as people who trust and rely on the insights of science to teach us about the nature of the observable world and our history within it. We generally take for granted what previous generations found blasphemous: that the earth is much, much older than the stories passed down by our various religious traditions; that humanity emerged as a species through a process of evolution that connects us to all other life on the planet; that the earth is not the center of the universe and does not exist for the sake of humanity alone. In this, we are like wise people from the east, feeling our way toward God even as we lean on and learn from sources of wisdom and knowledge that challenge and sometimes contradict received traditions.

We experience this as people who go to work each day with people of different religious identities, and who claim no religious identity at all; as people who are related by blood, adoption, marriage and affection to people from around the world and people who live in and among us with different ethnic and cultural traditions. We have worked alongside, dined with, listened to, learned from, and loved people whose vision of God is not only different, but often irreconcilable with our own. Yet we continue to navigate toward a shared future by sharing our stories and listening to each other’s, knowing that truth is not only found in our history and experience, but outside it as well.

It is in light of this rich diversity and unexpected openness that I hear Paul’s words to the Ephesians,

This grace was given to me to bring to the Gentiles the news of the boundless riches of Christ, and to make everyone see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things; so that through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. (Eph. 3:8b-10)

What I hear today with fresh ears is Paul’s hope and vision that the church would participate in revealing the rich variety, the rich diversity, of the wisdom of God. Note that he does not say that he was tasked with bringing the boundless riches of Christ to the Gentiles, but that he was charged with bringing the news of the boundless riches of Christ, as if to say that he is sharing news of what already is true — that the wisdom of God in its rich variety is found among all peoples and nations.

What a different church we might be if we imagined ourselves not as the star’s destination, but as the wise travelers feeling our way forward together, guided by light coming to us from the far reaches of space and time and governed by laws that have governed us all even before we could name them or know them. A church on the lookout for God’s wisdom shining throughout creation, among our neighbors, our enemies, even ourselves. A church on the margins speaking to the rulers and authorities about what can be learned when we stop hungering to live at the center.

That church, that society of diversity, that rich variety is coming into view in our lifetimes. It is a revelation, an epiphany, a manifestation of God among us challenging our most basic ideas about membership, citizenship, identity and belonging. It is a place we are finding together, which will demand all our gifts and talents, and which will take us down roads none of us have ever walked before.

Thanks be to God!



Sermon: Sunday, March 2, 2014: Transfiguration of Our Lord

Texts:  Exodus 24:12-18  +  Psalm 99  +  2 Peter 1:16-21  +  Matthew 17:1-9

I wish I could pretend that each Sunday I preach I climb into the pulpit with an equal measure of certainty about my insight into scripture and my convictions about what I have found there, but the truth is I don’t. There are simply weeks when the mixture of life, time and my own faith — which is being worked out day by day, just like yours — don’t feel quite up to the task. This, as you might gather, is one of those weeks.

My mom emailed me a couple of days ago, “the presiding bishop’s article in The Lutheran on the Transfiguration was really helpful to me.”  So I followed up on that lead. Bishop Eaton writes,

“The Transfiguration is a strange story — the mountain, the light, the appearance of Moses and Elijah, the utterly confounded disciples, the voice of God. How do we make sense of this supernatural event? What does the Transfiguration of our Lord have to do with us? I confess that I couldn’t figure it out. So, when serving in the parish, I scheduled Youth Sunday on Transfiguration Sunday, thereby successfully avoiding preaching about it for years.” (1)

Gee, thanks.  We’re about five kids short and six years shy of being able to pull that off, but a good suggestion nonetheless.  Bishop Eaton goes on, however, to reflect on the relationship between what happens on the mountaintop and what follows afterwards. On the mountain, Jesus shines with the glory of God. Down below, Jesus makes his way to the cross. The two are inseparable, the glory of God and the cross.

We’ve been singing “glory to God” as the canticle of praise at the beginning of worship for the last three months, since the beginning of Advent. The gloria comes, as the note in the margin of your bulletin indicates, from the story in the gospel of Luke of the arrival of the angels at the scene of Christ’s birth who sing, “glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those whom God favors” (Lk. 2:14). But Matthew’s gospel, which we’re reading throughout this year, the angels appear at night not in the fields, but in a dream, as Jesus’ father Joseph is visited by an angel who tells him, “‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,’ which means ‘God is with us’” (Mt. 1:23).

Immediately after that story, we learn that a star has appeared in the sky, a pinprick of light in the dark, leading wise men from distant nations to the place where Jesus was born. This season of Epiphany began with the glory of God shining brightly in the night, and just a hint of the cross as well. The God who is with us in Christ Jesus is not just with us, but is a light to the nations. Something small, something provincial and tribal, has to die to make room for the glory of God who came into the world for the sake of the whole world, and not just the people and places we know and care for.

Then Jesus met John at the river Jordan, where he was baptized by a man who could not believe that his Lord would consent to be blessed by someone as human as that wilderness prophet. “I need to be baptized by you,” John says, “and do you come to me?” Of course, that’s exactly what Jesus, the Immanuel, does.  God comes to us. God is with us. We sang “glory to God” on that day, the Baptism of Our Lord, to acknowledge the grace of that event, that God comes to us, even when we think it ought to be the other way around. And something had to die in that river, under those waters, namely John’s conviction (and ours) that the righteousness of God is only for the righteous.

As we continued to journey through the season of Epiphany, Jesus moved from Nazareth to Galilee, where he would meet and call his disciples. The gospel of Matthew quotes a bit of the prophet Isaiah here,

“On the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles — the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned” (Mt. 4:15-16).

The glory of God called the disciples — Peter and Andrew, James and John — away from work they knew and people they loved to follow Jesus on the path to a confrontation with power that would lead to a very public and very painful death. The glory of God and the cross.

Then we settled into the real meat of this season of Epiphany as Jesus came to the mountain again, this time to deliver the Sermon on the Mount. Here the glory of God was made manifest as Jesus, doing his best impersonation of Moses, delivered a new law from the mountaintop in the form of the Beatitudes. Blessed are just about everyone you’d think was far from blessed, theirs is the kingdom of God. The glory of God shining through in a reversal of fortune that meant death to all our expectations about who and what is valued in the commonwealth of God.

As I’ve just sketched out, so far this year we’ve been traveling with Jesus pretty sequentially through the gospel of Matthew, accompanying the disciples as they gradually come to understand that God really is with us in the person of Jesus, who they come to know as the Christ. Today, however, the lectionary rips us out of that continuity and shows us a scene close to the end, after the time for teaching parables and healing miracles has ended and Jesus prepares to die.

As I stand here in the pulpit, having already confessed to you that I’m not always ready to be here, that I’m not always ready to preach, that my own faith is fragile and bends under the weight of so much expectation, I discover that this may be exactly how the disciples are feeling as well.

By this point in the story Peter has already confessed that Jesus is the Christ, but almost immediately thereafter he’s been rebuked by Jesus who says to him, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” (Mt. 16:23). Why? Because Peter had the temerity to confront Jesus about his public profession that he would be killed by the authorities, but would rise on the third day. It’s all becoming a little too real, the cost of discipleship a little too high, as Jesus declares, “if any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Mt. 16:24).

Six days later, six days after Jesus has made it clear that God’s glory is going to be revealed most clearly in his death, Jesus returns to the mountain.  On those heights those who follow Jesus see him with Moses and Elijah, shining with the glory of God, and they just want to stop, to freeze this moment and live in it forever.

Episcopal priest and educator Maryetta Madeleine Anschutz, founder of the Episcopal School of Los Angeles, writes,

“The moment of transfiguration is that point at which God says to the world and to each of us that there is nothing we can do to prepare for or stand in the way of joy or sorrow. We cannot build God a monument, and we cannot keep God safe.” (2)

And I realize that this is exactly what has me afraid to preach sometimes, that I’m trying to make for God a monument of words, that I’m trying to keep God safe with stories and explanations that will make it easier for you to bring God up in the places where you work and mix with this world that is always denying that glory has anything to do with death.

But it does.  Glory has everything to do with death. Not just the little deaths, the practice deaths, we’ve watched along the way: the death of our prejudices, the death of our insecurities, the death of our certainties, the death of our expectations. But big death, the one with the capital D.

Jesus’ death is the sign of God’s ultimate solidarity with the suffering of creation. Jesus’ death is the proof that God is not distant, but is with us.

icu handsThis morning I am praying for a friend who is with his family at his mother’s bedside in the ICU, keeping watch as she straddles the line between life and death. Many of us know the anxiety and even the terror of that vigil, but we also know by faith that God is present at the bedside with that family.

This morning I am praying with the family of Lois Valbracht, a family friend who died this week at the age of 98, whose father-in-law was pastor here at St. Luke’s for a quarter century, and whose husband was the pastor of my childhood church in Des Moines, Iowa. She herself — as a mother, a musician, a writer — shared a faith that inspired those who knew her right up to the very end. Many of us know from our own lives how grief at a moment like this can still be transfigured by gratitude at the way God is revealed in a life lived by faith.

This morning I am praying with you, some of you caring for parents whose fragile lives are in precarious places; some of you weighed down by the grief of a parent or a spouse or a child or a friend who died too soon; some of you living with illnesses in your own bodies, approaching your own deaths. The word of hope from the mountaintop is that God is not distant, but with you.

Life is full of makeshift pulpits, moments in a conversation when you are called to coalesce your faith into words that can carry the meaning of God’s glory in the face of death. Just like I do, I know that you sometimes struggle to find words to share the faith that is in you; faith that sometimes stumbles, as it did for Jesus’ own disciples who heard the voice declare, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” and who fell to the ground in fear.

At moments like that, at moments like this, what comfort there is in knowing that it is not we who have to make our way to God, but God who makes a way to us.  As they trembled on the ground, overcome by awe and fear at the reality and the presence of God, Jesus came and touched them, saying “Get up and do not be afraid” (Mt. 17:7).

Patrick Wilson, a Presbyterian pastor in Williamsburg, Virginia writes,

“Some would say that God is much too much to be contained within the walls of a church. Of course they are right. Some would remind us that God is so great that neither the earth below not the heavens above can hold God. Certainly we must agree with them. God is certainly so great that God can never be contained in something as small as a crumb of bread or a sip of wine. We nod our heads, yes; but we must hasten to add: furthermore, God is so great, so majestic, so glorious, that God deigns come to us in a crumb of bread and a sip of wine, just as much of God as a hand can hold.” (3)

On the mountaintop God’s glory is revealed in a body preparing to die. A body like ours, transfigured by a love and a grace that will not abandon us, no matter where our life takes us, not even the cross. That is why we sing “glory to God” and “alleluia!”



(1) “From a Cross, a Dazzling Light,” by Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton. The Lutheran, March, 2014.

(2) “Pastoral Perspective, Matthew 17:1-9” in Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 1. Westminster John Knox Press, 2010.

(3) “Homiletical Perspective, Matthew 17:1-9” in Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 1. Westminster John Knox Press, 2010.