Fr. Tim’s sermon for February 17th, 2019

Traditional Icon of Jesus healing

Jeremiah 17:5-10
Psalm 1
1 Corinthians 15:12-20
Luke 6:17-26

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        I have a friend who comes from a part of the country where you don’t say “God bless you” after someone sneezes.  So, when we were hanging out, and I would sneeze, there would be just silence.  And I thought this was pretty awkward.  Where I grew up, saying “bless you” was an automatic response.  You just said it, and if you didn’t, you were being pretty rude.  So I told him this, and he rolled his eyes and said, “Oh come on, you don’t need a blessing each time you sneeze.”  We teased back and forth, and then, later, when I sneezed, he rushed over from the other side of the room, patted my hand, looked at me with a comforting (and sarcastic) face and said, “Tim, God bless you.”   

        Let’s turn for a moment to the Eucharist.  During our service, there are a number of very important moments, and one of them is the blessing of the bread and the wine.  Now, this happens towards the end of the prayer we use, so I say, “Therefore, we proclaim the mystery of faith:” and you all say, “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.”  “We celebrate the memorial of our redemption, O Father, in this sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving.  Recalling his death, resurrection, and ascension, we offer you these gifts.”  Now pay attention: “Sanctify them by your Holy Spirit to be for your people the Body and Blood of your Son, the holy food and drink of new and unending life in him.”  Sanctify them (I always feel like I should add “please” here) – Sanctify them, bless them (that’s why I make the sign of the cross) to be the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ.  One of our other prayers, prayer D, says it (I think) better: “Lord, we pray that in your goodness and mercy your Holy Spirit may descend upon us, and upon these gifts, sanctifying them and showing them to be holy gifts for your holy people, the bread of life and the cup of salvation, the Body and Blood of your Son Jesus Christ.”  But whatever the words, what I’m doing is blessing the bread and wine.  I could easily say, “Bread and wine, God bless you.”

        We use the word “bless” a lot.  We say “bless you” if someone sneezes or if they’re in a tight spot.  We visit with the sick, the tired, the hungry, and the downtrodden, which is a blessing even if we don’t use the words.  We bless our food, we bless others when they travel, or when it’s their birthdays.  We even, sometimes, bless God, which is one of the older forms of blessing.  So, with all these sorts of blessing, what does it mean to “bless” something or someone?

        In short, a blessing is a sign or prayer for grace.  Saying “You have been blessed” is recognizing God’s grace in a person’s life.  During the Eucharistic prayer, I pray that God’s grace is made manifest in the bread and the wine.  Blessing God is recognizing that God, and nothing else, is the source of all the grace in our lives.  One early Christian leader (whose name I can’t find, unfortunately, but who I think was St. Augustine) said that we should be blessing things all the time.  And this is to say that we should be looking for and recognizing and telling other people about God’s grace all through the live-long day.  Because God’s grace is all around us, and we should recognize and live in that grace always.

        And yet when we come to our gospel reading today, we may be surprised (like the people of the first century were surprised) that Jesus calls the poor, the hungry, and those who mourn: blessed.  Where is the grace in being poor?  Or being hungry?  Or being hated?  Luke doesn’t record them, but you can probably imagine the faces of people when they heard this: what in the world is Jesus talking about?

        The grace that Jesus is talking about, though, is not in being poor but in the way, and the fact that, God is with the poor.  All throughout the gospels, and all throughout the Bible as well, we constantly hear that God is with the poor and the outcasts.  From the laws and the prophets through God’s incarnation in Jesus Christ, time and time again God shows that he is with those who are at the bottom of society.  Gustavo Gutierrez, a modern theologian, has said that this isn’t because the poor are somehow better than others, either morally or religiously, but “simply because they are poor and living in an inhuman situation that is contrary to God’s will.”

        There is a grace in knowing this.  For when you’re poor, or hungry, or in despair, the world becomes grim and terrible.  This is especially the case with despair: for despair is not simply “grief”, which can be healthy.  We grieve for good things that are lost, or broken, or forgotten, and this grief, if directed to God, can heal us and make us whole.  But despair is different.  When a person is in despair, that despair becomes their world.  Even the light of the sun becomes a sorrow to them.  Despair denies that any power, any effort, any hope, even God himself, can overcome one’s sorrow, that despair itself is king of the universe.

        Jesus reminds us, instead, that we have a deeper identity.  How much money we have, how much food we have in our bellies, how much joy or sorrow we have in our hearts – these things don’t define us.  We are defined, each of us, by our relationship with God.  Our identity is not in the bank, on our voter registration card, or in the sort of car we drive; our identity as human beings is in Jesus Christ.  And for someone who is poor or in despair, who has nothing, not even hope, knowing this is a grace.  For someone who is rich, or full, or happy, on the other hand, the idea that our money or mood can change is something scary.  We who “have” want to pretend that we’ll always have.  But how easily may those good things in our lives become idols we put before God.

        This is, of course, why we do things like the food bank, and why we invite people to our breakfast and dinner ministries: not just because it’s kinda fun to help people and, hey, the stoves’ on anyway, but because whether you’re poor or rich, hungry or full, in the depths of sorrow or the heights of joy, you’re still a child of God.  Christ is in each of us, working for the glory of God.  But the world we live in doesn’t look like God’s kingdom.  And so we do what we can, with our hands and with our prayers to make that grace and love of God more fully manifest in this world.  For, in the end, God has blessed us, like Abraham, so that we too may be a blessing. 

Fr. Tim’s sermon for February 10th, 2019

The Miraculous Draught of Fishes – James Tissot

Isaiah 6:1-8 [9-13]
Psalm 138
1 Corinthians 15:1-11
Luke 5:1-11

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          There is a resurrection in our gospel reading today.  It’s not the resurrection of Lazarus, where a man who has been dead walks out of his tomb.  And it’s not the Resurrection of Jesus, where our savior, having been crucified, is raised from the dead for the Salvation of all Creation.  These are grand and beautiful resurrections that shake the foundations of the world.  And these miracles as powerful now as they must have been when they happened.  But the resurrection we hear about this morning in the gospel is quieter and simpler than these.  This of course doesn’t make it any less than a miracle, for it’s the resurrection of a man from despair.

          Now, Simon Peter, who we know as the great St. Peter, the one who sees Christ Transfigured on the mountaintop, the one who falls asleep in the garden and who denies Jesus three times, that St. Peter who the basilica in Rome is named after, this St. Peter was, at first, a fisherman.  His job was to go out onto the sea, catch fish, then go back, and sell them at the market.  And as any fisherman knows, some days there were good catches, and some days there were bad catches.  On those good days, he would eat, and on the bad days – maybe he wouldn’t. 

          Then Jesus comes, and he performs a miracle.  Now, there are many times in the gospels where the people understand who Jesus is.  There are times when the skies clear, and they see Jesus clearly as the Son of God.  And then their eyes cloud over again, and they forget and act all selfish and proud and deceitful again, but there are times – small times, short moments – when it all makes sense.  Peter has one of these moments here in today’s gospel.  He sees the miracle of the fish, he can hear the ropes straining against their load, perhaps even the fisherman cheering and laughing aloud at the catch.  And he might remember all those times when he came home with an empty boat, and perhaps cursed and hated his trade.  And he looks to Jesus, and he sees clearly as a man who can do what he cannot.  The miracle strikes him at his heart, and it strikes him perhaps even more deeply because it’s about what he knows  best in all the world.  It is not just “a miracle” but a miracle about his very life.  And he knows that, like Moses with the Burning Bush, he’s standing on holy ground.  And knowing this, his legs can no longer hold him, and he falls to the ground.

          “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!”

Have you ever said these words?  Have you ever recalled, with dawning grief and horror, something you’ve done in your life and known, just known that you were a sinner?  I don’t know about you, but I have.  These are my words just as they are Peter’s.  For they hurt us, our sins.  Those times when we cheated or lied or spoke words of hate because we didn’t know any better or, perhaps, just maybe, we really spoke them because we wanted them to hurt.  And in our pain, in our sorrow from our own sins, we wonder, like Peter, how God can really keep his promise to love us.  And that makes the pain even worse.

          And yet here – here in the middle of all this pain – is the second miracle.  It’s not the miracle of the fish, the one that everyone can see; it’s the miracle of a resurrection inside the heart of this fisherman named Simon Peter.  For it is at the moment when Peter pushes Jesus away, that very moment when he shoves away the Lord with shaking hands, that God comes close to him.  And it’s important to hear what Jesus says, and what he doesn’t say.  For Jesus does not say, “Oh, Peter, get up, you’re embarrassing me”, or “Oh, yes, you are a sinner and you’ve been very naughty, but I can still use someone broken like you”, or even “Yes, well, I’ll just whisk all that sin away for you and we won’t talk about it again.”  No, Jesus says, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.”

          Now, when we talk about spiritual gifts, we often talk about what we’re already good at.  We match what skills people have with what is needed in the community, and we call these skills “spiritual gifts.”  I can write decently, have an ear for listening, and can lead a group of people, and that’s what you need for being a priest, so maybe I should be a priest.  I read a joke online once, where a young person who had a pick-up truck came to church, and the pastor discerned that this person had the spiritual gifts of helping people move furniture.  Jack over here is a teacher, so you teach; Edith can speak in tongues, and Ron can interpret them, so you go and do that.  And while figuring out what good things God has given us, and using those things for ministry, is important, I think we often forget how much resurrection there is with spiritual gifts.

          Here’s a personal story.  I think I’ve told it before, but, hey, stories are made to be told twice.  When I was in college, I was a horrible public speaker.  I was so anxious, and so terrified, that when I had to do anything in front of the class, I panicked.  I remember once standing behind a podium and mumbling for five minutes before the teacher had pity on me and sat me down.  Sure, I loved talking to people, and I enjoyed teaching in very, very small groups.  I don’t know what it was, but the idea of standing in front of people terrified me.

          But then, on my first day teaching, all that changed.  It was in Japan, and I was led to the front of a class full of eager 7th graders, introduced in a language I was still struggling to understand, then left – alone.  There they were, a class full of students, all staring at me, waiting, expectant.  I swallowed hard, took a deep breath, and taught.  And I was okay.  I didn’t mumble, I didn’t cry, I didn’t faint away – I taught.  And ever since that moment my fear of public speaking has pretty much disappeared.  What happened, I think, is that God gave me a gift – not a new gift, God didn’t give me some skill that I never had.  No, he took my love of telling stories or tutoring one or two students, and he enlivened it, renewed it, resurrected it to help me teach more people – and, one day, to speak to others as a priest.

          Simon Peter the fisherman became St. Peter the apostle.  And Jesus didn’t do this by changing Peter but by renewing him.  And this call came when Peter had fallen to his knees in despair.  And Jesus takes that despair, and the man on his knees, and lifts them up, and breathes new life into them.  And those things over which Peter despaired became the place of his rebirth as a disciple of Jesus Christ.

          Now, I don’t often end sermons with homework, but I’ll do so today.  This week, take some time and consider how Jesus is working in you.  What is Jesus trying to resurrect in you?  And I don’t mean just what he’s trying to make new so that you can use it for the benefit of your family, church, and society (though maybe he is).  But what part of you have you said, “God probably doesn’t love this part of me.”  What have you given up on that, maybe, Jesus hasn’t?  What hope, that you thought dead, is Jesus kneeling before and saying, “Do not be afraid”?  For we should not forget: Christians are a resurrection people.  We are an Easter people.  And that means that Jesus – not death, not despair, not tears or pain or sorrow – but Jesus has the last and final word.

Fr. Tim’s Sermon for February 3rd

Jeremiah 1:4-10
Psalm 71:1-6
1 Corinthians 13:1-13
Luke 4:21-30

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          I want to begin this morning by talking about the liturgy.  So open your BCPs for a second to page 355.  This is the beginning of our celebration: the Holy Eucharist: Rite Two; very nice.  And how does it begin: the priest stands in front of everyone and says, “Blessed be God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” And the people say, “And blessed be his kingdom, now and for ever.  Amen.”  Now, why do you think we begin this way?  Because we could begin in a lot of different ways.  I could say, “Hi there, everyone.”  “Hi Father Tim!”  or “How was your week?” “It was great Father Tim!”  But we don’t.  We begin with this.  How come?

          [pause and listen to answers]

          Okay, now turn the page over to 357.  Here in the middle we have the lessons, right?  A member of the congregation gets up and reads part of the Bible.  And when they’re done, what do they say? “The Word of the Lord” “Thanks be to God.”  Why do we say that? [pause]  Again, we could say something else.  We could say. “That’s all, folks” or “That’s all I feel like reading.”  No, we say “The Word of the Lord.”  Why?

          [pause for answers]

          Okay, one more.  Close your BCP and look up.  This is something I was taught in Eugene and found in Sewanee a lot, too.  Did you notice that, every now and again during the liturgy, I bow.  Do you know when?  It’s at the name of Jesus Christ. “For you alone are the Holy One, you alone are the Lord, you alone are the Most High, Jesus Christ, with the Holy Spirit” etc.  Why do you think I do that? [pause]  This is something I’ve taken on.  You see, I have a wayward mind.  And as I lead you in the liturgy, often my mind says, “Hey, what’s up next” and “Are you ready to read the collect” or “Oh no, should I be standing up right now?”  I try to focus my attention, but sometimes – maybe I’m sleepy, maybe my mind just is on overdrive – I can’t.  And so I bow at the name of Christ.  I bow as a physical prayer, and that prayer, if I put words to it, would be: Jesus, focus me on you, and you alone.  And that gives me focus, so I can lead you all in prayer.  Praying in the name of Jesus Christ, and focusing on his name specifically, is a powerful, powerful thing.

          Where we start is important.  Howwe begin is important.  Now, we humans are so often doers.  And we sometimes get caught up in what we’re doing and how we’re doing it, and we forget about what’s most important: Jesus Christ.  I had this problem often when teaching.  There was always just so much material to get through, so many lectures to give, so many parts of grammar or writing or books to explain, that I often fell into thinking that just “giving information” was my job.  I had forgotten that my job wasn’t just to explain how to use commas correctly or the themes in Beowulf but to nurture the living image of Jesus Christ in my students.  And when I taught that way, when I tried to stuff commas and proper thesis statements and the form of a sonnet into their heads, I always failed.  But when I started (as I was reminded by some good teachers) when I started by loving Christ in my students, then, and only then, was I able to really teach.  Because knowledge isn’t only just facts; it’s love.

          We hear this same thing in the Bible quite often, and especially in our readings this morning.  For God comes to Jeremiah and says, “I’ve got something for you to do.”  And how does Jeremiah respond?  He says, “But I am only a boy.”  I’m just a kid.  How can I be a prophet like you want me to be?  And what does God say?  “Ahh, well that’s what you are now, but I’ve known you before you were a boy, before you were born, before you were even conceived, I knew you.  I know your foundation, and it is from here, not from you boy-ness, that I tell you: go and be a prophet for my people.

          It’s in the gospel, too.  Jesus stands up and proclaims that he is the fulfillment of the promise of Isaiah.  And the people around him say, “Wait a second.  We know this guy.  He’s just Joseph’s son.”  Or in the same scene in Matthew: “Isn’t he the son of a carpenter?  Isn’t he Mary’s son?” And Jesus may have said, “Yes, but I am more.  Look at the foundation I stand on.  Look at who I am.” 

          Ministry is about Jesus.  Our liturgy is about Jesus.  Church is about Jesus.  We can’t forget that.  And that doesn’t mean that we always have to be talking about Jesus.  When we’re at the food bank, we don’t sit people down and ask, “Have you heard about Jesus?” as if he were a movie or a new book.  No, we hand hungry people a bag full of food and we let them know, whether it be with words or without, that they are safe and loved.  In doing so, we’re telling them about Jesus.  And for Soup Suppers or Prayer Breakfast, do we drag people in and say, “Here’s who Jesus is”?  No, we invite them to come, pray that they will, and eat with them first.  We share our time, our resources, our gifts, and our love, and on this foundation – which is Jesus – then we begin teaching about the faith. 

          And don’t get me wrong: there are some people who need to hear the name Jesus and to hear it directly.  I’ve had many times, especially in my hospital chaplaincy, where people would talk about their grief and sorrow and depression and loss and I’d just have to stop them and say, “Jesus loves you.”  And this wouldn’t cure their illness or their depression, but you could see, visibly, a weight lifted off their shoulders.  And there are some days for me when things are going just terrible, I feel wayward and exhausted.  Then I remember, bow slightly at the name of Jesus Christ, and set my heart to Sunday and the Eucharist.  And I am fed.

          But whatever the case, we always start with Jesus.  And we do this not because he was just a good teacher or said some great things, but because Jesus Christ is the foundation of all Creation.  Do you remember the beginning of St. John’s gospel?  “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”  Jesus isn’t just our co-pilot or a friend we go to when we’re in trouble.  No, Jesus is the source of life – all life.  All our effort, all our ministry, each time we feel joyful or hopeful, each instance of healing, be it a miracle or just nature going its way – all of it is because of God in Jesus Christ, through the Spirit.  It’s all about Jesus.

          And so as we live our lives as Christians, start with Jesus.  The BAC and I are going to take that awesome ministry board we created last week – the one with all those ideas and prayers and gifts and hopes – we’re going to take it and look at how we can do better and further ministry in Coquille.  And we’ll begin that effort with Jesus.  And in the year to come, we’ll be walking with God and with the people of this city in those ministries.  But whatever we do, be it Soup Suppers or Thursday Eucharist or something we haven’t even seen yet but that God has in store for us – whatever it is, let us always begin with Jesus.

Fr. Tim’s Sermon for January 13th, the Baptism of our Lord

Sketch of Jesus being baptized, by Rembrandt

Isaiah 43:1-7
Psalm 29
Acts 8:14-17
Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

Click here to access these readings.

When we come to the world of the gospels, of the world where Jesus was born and lived, we come to a world of expectation.  Now, this isn’t the same kind of expectation that we had in Advent when we were waiting for Christmas.  Then, we knew when Christmas would be.  We knew that Christmas would be on the 25th, and each day we would check off another day on our calendars.  And as the day came closer and closer, we got more excited, maybe a bit more stressed and anxious that all would get finished, but the day of Christmas is set.  It doesn’t move.  It stays the same from year to year, and no matter how much more we have to get done, and no hard it is to wait, the day of Christmas remains the same.

The expectation of Jesus’ time was like this, but it was also different.  It is, perhaps, a little more like waiting for a baby to be born.  The doctors give you some vague day – April 14th…ish.  Or around there.  Maybe.  But you never know.  So when April comes along, even though it’s fourteen days until the due date, you start wondering: what about today?  What about now?  And as the due date gets closer, the doctors start saying, “Sure, but the baby could be late, too.  Or early.  Or on time.”  Helene and I had our bags packed and in the car, but we didn’t know if we’d leave for the hospital on the 12th or the 15th or the 20th.  Would it be morning?  The middle of the night?  During rush hour?  We were expecting a great moment and a great change in our lives and in our family, and we only had a slight inkling of when that change would come. 

The expectation of Jesus’ time was like this, but it was also different.  You see, people in Jesus’ day were sure that the Messiah would come.  Their Scriptures (which we know now as the Old Testament) said a lot about what the Messiah would do and how he would do it, but they didn’t say anything about “when.”  Or, they did, but it wasn’t like with Christmas (“the Messiah will come on December 25th, in the year 2 A.D., at 11:23 p.m.”), nor did they have a rough estimate (“some time in the spring, probably”).  They had this: soon.  The Messiah would come soon.  And that’s all they had to go on.

But there’s another difference, and this difference is important.  I wanted Christmas to come because I love Christmas Eve service, and I love Christmas morning.  I love exchanging gifts with my family and teaching Gwendolyn and Fiona about what giving means.  I love thinking about and, again, teaching what Jesus’ birth into this world means.  And with the births of my children, there was a lot of anxious waiting, but the thing we were waiting for was a new life in our lives.  Their births would be a great change – I knew this – but it was all a lot of joy.  For both, the time of expectation was good, sometimes tough, but overall really good.

But not all waiting is good.  Not all waiting is joyful.  The people of Jesus’ time were waiting, but they were waiting for salvation.  And so it might be better to compare their expectation with that of a person waiting for a donor for a heart transplant.  Or maybe a birth, but a birth with a lot of complications around it.  For these people, waiting isn’t just a bit of anxiety before getting a good thing.  They know something good is coming, but there’s a worry: what if it’s too late?  I’m hurting so much now, how can I live in this pain?  Why can’t God get on with it and give me some help?  Why do I have to wait?

In this sort of waiting, there’s a lot of doubt and a lot of grief.  And so when we come to Luke’s gospel, and we hear that the people were filled with expectation, we shouldn’t imagine, perhaps, everyone waiting in Times Square in New York City for the ball to drop on New Years Eve, but a man sitting alone in a waiting room praying “How long, O Lord, how long?”  Is there joy in this expectation?  Surely, but it might perhaps be better to call it hope, and a hope long fought for and struggled with. 

For Jesus’ world was in pain.  It was a world that had been ruled by a foreign empire for generations.  It was a world that saw war and famine, disease and heartache.  This world did not just wait for the Messiah – it longed for the Messiah.  It didn’t just call out, “God, save us” but “God, come on and save us already!”  Perhaps we can forgive them for running up to John and demanding, “Are you him, are you him, are you finally him?”

And it is into this expectation that Jesus does, finally, come.  But it is important how he comes.  Does Jesus come in, riding a tall, white horse, with a sword drawn?  Or does he come with a great cape and a magic wand, ready to whisk away pain in an instant?  No.  He doesn’t.  He comes in the midst of them.  He comes where they’re hurting the most.  He comes into their expectation and doubt and longing because he knows that we need that much more than we need a sword or a magic wand.  Jesus comes to be present in our pain.

And this answers a pretty good question we might ask the Bible: why does Jesus need to be baptized?  Baptism is about cleansing our sins, right?  It’s about washing away the dirt and gunk and stains, isn’t it?  And if Jesus is free of sin, then what is he doing in the Jordan river with everyone else being washed?  And we’re in good company in asking this question, because John the Baptist asks it in Matthew’s gospel when he sees Jesus coming into the river.  What are you up to, Lord?  Why come into this dirty river with us when you’re so clean?

But that’s not how Luke sees it.  That’s not how Luke sees Jesus’ baptism.  For he looks at it and says, See, here Jesus is showing us that we don’t just need a bit of care or a nice pill that can take away the symptoms.  No, Jesus shows us that real healing – healing that digs out the root of our pain and our suffering, that answers those longings for help that go to the heart of our souls – that sort of healing is found only in God being born within us.  And to do this, God doesn’t just stand by us in our pain but enters into that pain.  God doesn’t just pat us on the hand and say, “There, there”, but cries with us, cries out with us, sits up all night in expectation with us, and not just with us, but in us.  It’s like how you make sweet tea in the south.  You don’t make tea and then add the sugar in later.  No, you add the sugar in while you’re brewing it, so that it’s not just a little sweet additive that’s sprinkled on top but cooked deep into the tea.  The sugar and the tea become fused together, so that one can’t be taken from the other.

And this is how God asks us to be with the world in our own ministries.  We don’t leave the door of the food bank open with a sign that says, “Take what you need.”  No, we are present in the room, talk to the people, and hand them a bag of food from our own hands.  Or, when new people come into our food ministries here, be it Emmaus Meals or Prayer Breakfast, we don’t give them a plate and shoo them out the door.  No, we invite them to sit with us, to tell us their story, to join in our conversation, and we tell them our story as well.  Doing ministry means getting into people’s lives, living with them, and walking with them. 

We can think of many ways to express this.  We can bring up a lot of different images and ideas and speak till we’re blue in the face.  But at the end of the day, we can just quote Isaiah when he writes, “And God said, ‘I love you.’”

Fr. Tim’s Sermon for the Feast of the Epiphany, Jan. 6th

The Adoration of the Magi by Edward Burne-Jones

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

Click here to access these readings.

        Most of the stories we read in church are about the good examples.  Most often, we read of how God comes into people’s lives to change them and make them more holy, and these people turn to God and say, “Here I am, Lord.”  But not everyone.  Every now and again we get someone who isn’t exactly the best role model for our kids or grandkids.  Some people see God coming and they hide themselves, like Adam and Eve.  Some hear the word of God and they run the other way, like Jonah.  And some, like Herod, when they hear of a new star rising in the East, they are afraid.

And this story about King Herod comes on an important day.  For today is the Feast of the Epiphany, one of the major feasts of the church year.  Traditionally, there are three gospel stories associated with Epiphany: the wedding at Cana, where Jesus performs his first public miracle; the baptism of Jesus; and the coming of the three wise men.  In each, something new is happening.  Something unlooked for and un-hoped for comes about.  But in each, what seems like new turns out to have deep roots in the old. 

        But what is an “epiphany”?  This isn’t just a religious word.  We can use it in normal English, too.  It’s a sudden discovery, a sudden and powerful realization of how things are or how things work.  It’s like a scientist crying out “Eureka!”, but it’s not just a mental realization where you figure out how to solve a puzzle, but something where your whole self realizes something deep and true about the world.  It is the appearance of something holy, and something wholly other, in one’s life.  It is, in a way, a revelation of God.

        Epiphanies happen often in the Bible.  The Burning Bush is an epiphany.  Moses is walking along in the wilderness when, suddenly, he sees a bush on fire, yet not consumed.  Suddenly, he comes into the presence of God.  This happens to St. Paul, too.  Before he became the apostle to the gentiles, Paul went around persecuting Christians.  Then, one day, while he was riding into a city, a great light opens up from the sky and knocks him off his horse.  Then he heard a voice crying out, “Why are you persecuting me?”  The voice belonged to Jesus Christ, and it was a voice that turned Paul’s entire life around.  The voice and the light were epiphanies of God.

        But Epiphanies also happen outside the Bible as well.  They happen in ministry all the time.  One of my friends, another new priest who serves a parish down in Arkansas, told me about one the other day.  He had just gotten back from seeing some family after Christmas, and he was sitting in his office trying to get back into the swing of work.  But he felt unfocused in that Monday-after-a-vacation sort of way, and so, after fiddling around a little, he looked up and said, “Loving God, what do you want me to be up to today?”  And, literally fifteen seconds later, a gallon and a half of water pours through the light fixture above his desk.  “Ahh,” he said, “I see you want me to minister to the HVAC system upstairs!”

         Sometimes God calls us through a person in need, sometimes God calls us with water through the light fixture.  But all jokes aside, we witness to Epiphanies – we come into contact with God – when we are out in the world in ministry.  It doesn’t take a priest to see it.  A few weeks ago I mentioned how important our ministries – that to us can seem so small – are for people in need.  And when we are in people’s lives, living a life of hope and love, we see God at work constantly.  Miracles happen.  Sometimes they look like a sudden turn in a person’s health, and sometimes they look like doubt turned to hope in the final hours of life.  I saw them often while teaching.  For in teaching, like Christian ministry, you’re allowed into another person’s life, even for just a few moments.  But in that tiny amount of time, you’re given the opportunity to do such great acts of love.  Often it’s just being present, being just another human being sitting beside someone, often someone who’s confused or lost or doesn’t know where to go.  And that connection between two people, that’s where miracles happen, that’s where the love of God is made real and alive.  For, as Jesus says in the gospel of Matthew, “Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am in the midst of them.”

        And yet, King Herod is afraid.  Jonah hears the word of God, and he runs the other way.  Adam and Eve hide themselves from God’s presence.  And, in a way, we can understand this fear, because we ourselves have felt it, too.  I know there are many times when I myself have heard God’s call and said, “Nuh-uh” and booked it.  But, from knowing Herod’s fear in our own hearts, we also know what it does to us.  It hardens us, doesn’t it?  When we reject God, we shut everything else out, we see and we hear less clearly.  We put up walls like medieval castles, where you can only get in through big, strong doors defended by armored me with swords and arrows.  We think we can do it alone, where God says, “I give you a new commandment: that you love one another.”  And love always reaches out, not waits around to bite.

        Fear is never an aspect of God.  When the Bible talks about “fearing” God, what it means is respect, trust, hope, and loyalty.  But fear – that feeling to push away something, to turn and run from it, to stop up our eyes and our ears and our hearts because something is too big or scary – that fear is not what God’s about.  And because of that, it’s not an part of the Christian life.  The Christian life is to live with an open heart.  And that doesn’t mean that we can’t reflect on what is before us, or hold it in prayer before God.  But we must begin with that open heart.  And that can make all the difference.

        And this is why King Herod’s opposite in the gospels is Mary.  And not because she accepted the angel Gabriel’s word where Herod rejected it.  Remember back to the story we heard on Christmas Eve, when the shepherds come to Mary and Joseph, telling them that they’ve seen a great heavenly host.  What does Mary do?  She treasures these words and ponders them in her heart.  Or think back further, to the story of the Annunciation: when Mary hears that she will bear the Son of the Most High, what does she do?  She doesn’t turn away in fear like Herod, nor does she hop up immediately and say, “Here I am, Lord!”  She takes it all in and contemplates these things in her heart.  She is open to the words, she discerns them and considers them in love, and only then does she say, “Yes, be it unto me according to thy word.”

        We live in difficult times.  We live in times where people are constantly trying to draw lines and separate people.  And we Christians are called to resist those lines and that separation.  So, let us begin this new year with open hearts and hope that the foundation of this world is not fear and doubt, but God Almighty, the very source of all life and light.