Monday, January 10, 2011

Epiphany: Called into the World

Sermon preached at the Church of St. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene on the First Sunday after the Epiphany: Isaiah 42:1-9; Acts 10:34-43; Matthew 2:1-12; 3:13-17; John 2:1-11

We have been immersed in our yearly celebration of God coming into the world: Christmas. Today we take the next step. It is our turn. Now we are called to follow God into the world. We are sent. We are people on a mission: Epiphany.

The richness of the texts and imagery of today speak eloquently enough about the intention of God to be known in the world. For that is what Epiphany means: a celebration of the revelation of God in the world. Our Eastern Orthodox friends prefer a stronger word—this is not just an epiphany, this is a theophany! This is not just anyone’s coming out party. This is the celebration of the coming out of the great God of all creation. Welcome to God’s party!

There is purpose in this party, divine intention. And it is to send us forth with good news. Good news of an unbreakable covenant and light for the world. Good news of peace by Jesus Christ. Good news of an alternative road so that we do not have to be the tools of oppressors. Good news of our belovedness in the eyes of God, shared with our brother Jesus. Good news of good wine, saved until now, for us.

Our Baptismal Covenant asks us, “Will you proclaim by word and example the good news of God in Christ?” (BCP, p. 305) I sometimes suspect that this is the hardest of the questions of the Covenant for us. We know what it is about but it is a word and a concept most Episcopalians find distasteful: evangelism.

We find it so distasteful, I think, for a couple of reasons. First of all we have almost totally bought into the cultural belief around us that religion is an entirely private matter. Religion is not something you talk about in polite company. This used to be no big deal when the culture told people to go to church. It does not do that anymore. It is a different world and our reticence is killing us.

Second of all, when we hear the word “evangelism” we allow other Christian traditions to fill our heads with words and images for what that means. And for many of us, what that means is something we escaped by becoming Episcopalians.

Can we change this way of thinking? I think we had better try or we will be no more. At the end of 2000 there 3,724 active Episcopalians in Rochester city parishes. At the end of 2008 there were 2,234, a drop of 40%. Those are very sobering and serious statistics. It’s not just about us. They mirror the whole diocese, the whole Episcopal Church, indeed the whole of mainline Protestant Christianity. We are in deep, deep trouble.

That’s the bad news. But there is good news, very good news. The good news is not first and foremost about us, it never is. The good news is about God. It’s that good news I spoke about just a few moments ago. It is the good news of Isaiah 42: God has called a servant, a chosen servant God has promised to uphold and delight in, a servant God has given his spirit to, a servant he has given a message to proclaim and work to do.

Christians have always believed this Servant of whom Isaiah spoke was and is Jesus of Nazareth. I believe that. But it doesn’t stop there. It doesn’t stop with Christmas. Epiphany follows. It is first and foremost about Jesus, but it is not all about Jesus. It is also about us, his children, called to proclaim his message and do his work of justice-doing and peace-making.

Edward Schillebeeckx (quoted two weeks in a row!) once said that Jesus is the sacrament of God and the church (that is to say, we) are the sacrament of Jesus.

We are the sacrament of Jesus. Can that language begin to replace the words and imagery conjured up by the word evangelism? Evangelism is being the sacrament of Jesus.

I’m going to leave it there, but fair warning. I’m going to spend most of Epiphany season talking about this stuff, wrestling with these questions:

What does it mean that we are sent by God into the world?

What does it mean that we are to proclaim in word and deed the good news of God in Christ?

What does it mean that we, Episcopalians though we are, are called to evangelism?

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