Sexagesima Sunday: Preparing to Prepare

Fourth Sunday After Epiphany (Sexagesima)
“Preparing to Prepare” // A Sermon by Fr. Sammy Wood
Jeremiah 1.4-10
Psalm 71.1-17
1 Corinthians 14.4-10
Luke 4.21-32

+ In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Last Sunday and today we are studying a single story in St. Luke’s gospel, one single “pericope.” Pericope is a fancy Greek word that means “to cut around,” [peri– (around) + kope (cut)], and it just means a block of text that forms a single literary unit, a story you can cut and lift from off the page to study by itself. So, in this single pericope in Luke 4: Jesus is home, back in Galilee where he grew up. Last Sunday saw Jesus in the synagogue teaching from the prophet Isaiah — someday, the dream had always been, a messiah would come and proclaim good news to the poor, liberty to captives, sight to the blind, and Jesus said: “Today, right before your eyes, that dream is coming true.” And they marveled. Everyone spoke well of him, Luke says.

But the story didn’t stop — today come the inevitable questions of Jesus’ credentials: “This kid’s a townie! We know where he lives. Who ever saw him at the rabbi school?” They can’t see Jesus for who he really is. And in just two sentences, the crowd lurches from speaking well of Jesus to trying to kill him. Two sentences. Today I want to look at those two sentences and at two dramatic shifts — (1) From marveling to murder; and (2) from a feast to a fast.

First: From Marveling to Murder
The shift occurs between verse 22, “all spoke well of him and marveled at [his] words,” and verse 29, “they brought him to the brow of a hill . . . so they could throw him down the cliff.” Seven verses to go from marveling to murder. Why? What did Jesus say that infuriated them so?

It’s in the two sentences — and two stories. First, Elijah — one of the most famous miracle-workers in the OT. Everybody knew about his exploits, and one is recorded in 1 Kings 17. God told Elijah a terrible drought would come on Israel — no rain for 3 years. When the rivers dried up, God sent Elijah north, out of Israel to a foreign land, where a widow would give him water and food. Keep that in mind for a second — God sends Elijah to a foreigner for help.

Story two: Elisha — Elijah’s protege and successor, a great wonder-worker and mighty prophet in his own right. In 2 Kings 5, a man named Naaman, commander of the Syrian army, came to Israel for a cure for his leprosy. Elisha told Naaman to go wash in the Jordan river 7 times, and although he resisted this rather unorthodox prescription at first, Naaman did go to the Jordan, he did wash 7 times, and “he was clean.” (2 Kings 5.14)

Now — What about those two stories swung the crowd from marveling to murder? N. T. Wright, in his little commentary on Luke, puts it this way:

What was so wrong with what [Jesus] was saying . . . ? Elijah was sent to help a widow — but not a Jewish one. Elisha healed one solitary leper — and the leper was the commander of the enemy army. That’s what did it. That’s what drove them to fury. Israel’s God was rescuing the wrong people.

They tried to throw him off a cliff because he dared to point out that God wasn’t always on their side! We hate that. Jesus overruns our banks, seeps into places we don’t want him to go, and it makes us incredibly uncomfortable. Between Mississippi and Washington, DC and here, I’ve been in all kinds of churches. I’ve been in churches that thought “gay Christian” was a contradiction in terms. And I’ve been in churches where God’s grace goes to everybody, except maybe Hitler. Or Sarah Palin. But Jesus has a knack for eluding us all. We think we have him figured — our friends are his friends, our enemies his enemies — we have him pinned down, but “passing through our midst, he goes away.”

Here’s my point: The idea for this sermon came last week when I re-watched a movie called Calvary. Seen it? You should. It opens with a quote attributed to St. Augustine (maybe it was — if it wasn’t Augustine, it should’ve been):

Do not despair, one of the thieves was saved.
Do not presume, one of the thieves was damned.

Never presume. In a space as narrow as a single human encounter, or as vast as the Anglican Communion — we do well not to presume to know the boundaries of God’s grace. God always seems to be rescuing the wrong people.

Second shift: From a feast to a fast
Why do you think St. Luke put this story here, right at the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry? The other gospels put it much later, but Luke tacks it on right after Jesus’ baptism and temptation. I think Luke puts it here because it’s a key — this story is Jesus’ whole ministry in a microcosm. The shift from accolades to accusations plays out again and again, most memorably between Palm Sunday (when people shout Jesus’ praises) and Good Friday (when they clamor for his death). Luke puts the story here because even from the hill in Galilee they tried to throw him from, Jesus saw another hill. Calvary, where the cross was already casting its shadow.

Lenten-Diagram-from-My-Book-of-the-Churchs-Year-by-Enid-M.-Chadwick-01A shadow looms ahead of us, as well. We’re about to shift from a feast to a fast. We feasted at Christmas and in the brightness of Epiphanytide, but darkness is gathering. In just 10 days, we receive ashes and Lent begins.

Why mention that now? How many of you remember the name Juma Ikangaa? Not sure I’m saying it right, but between 1988 and 1990 a Tanzanian man named Juma Ikangaa ran the Boston Marathon, and he finished second all three times. Of course, he became a sentimental favorite around here — we were used to finishing second, and we like scrappy underdogs. He never won Boston, but we remember him for a famous quote: “The will to win means nothing without the will to prepare.”

To borrow Juma’s words: The will to keep Lent means nothing without the will to prepare now, so the church traditionally kept something called “pre-Lent.” In the western church it was the three Sundays before Ash Wednesday where the readings focused on penance, devotion, atonement. The Gloria was omitted at mass; purple vestments appeared. Those were the “Gesimas” — Septuagesima (“seventieth”), Sexagesima (“sixtieth”), and Quinquagesima (“fiftieth”). Page 8 of the bulletin explains more of what those words mean, and it tells us today is the middle Sunday — Sexagesima. Anyway, the church kept these days because the shift from feasting at Christmas to fasting in Lent is such a shock to the system. Fr. Schmemann says:

Knowing our lack of concentration and the frightening “worldliness” of our life, the Church knows our inability to change rapidly, to go abruptly from one spiritual or mental state into another. Thus, long before the actual effort of Lent is to begin, the Church calls our attention to its seriousness and invites us to meditate on its significance.

That’s why we still call today Sexagesima here at the Advent, why the bulletin says “Prepare to prepare.” We can’t keep Lent, can’t really keep Lent, unless we prepare. So here’s an assignment: Start thinking about Lent today. What is God calling you to do this year, to give up or take on, to make room for God in your life?

  • Maybe keep the corporate disciplines we do as a parish — Fr. Warren hopes to have the booklets ready by next Sunday
  • Or read a book — Ask for a book suggestion, or go online to find something. Just don’t wait until Mardi Gras to order it!
  • Take your calendar and carve out a time each day to sit and listen to God’s voice.
  • Plan to pray the Rosary with us on Thursdays or Fridays before mass
  • Sit in on the parish Bible study on Wednesday mornings or the Christian Basics class on Wednesday nights
  • Serve at the Tuesday Night Supper

Whatever God leads you to do, the shift from a feast to a fast is closer than you think. The cross is casting its shadow. The church says: Get ready.

One last point (I promise it’s short): If I’m not mistaken, we just finished breaking all our New Years Resolutions about 15 minutes ago. You know you did. I certainly did. And now we’re resolving again for Lent. What’s “gospel” about that? Just this: St. John said Jesus “came to his own, and his own received him not” — they broke all their promises, betrayed him at every turn — but, John says, but “to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.” (John 1.12-13) Thank God we don’t have to will ourselves into God’s family. None of us could. But God. His will is what carries the day. Lent can pry open our hearts just a little to let more of God in. Prepare now.

Prepare to work like it all depends on you.

But believe like it all depends on God.

Because it does.

+ In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

{Audio of this sermon is available at http://bit.ly/1Txy2be}

“The Reveal” :: Sermon Preached by Fr. Sammy Wood on the Feast of the Epiphany

Feast of the Epiphany // 6 January 2016
“The Reveal” // A Sermon by Fr. Sammy Wood
Isaiah 60.1-6, 9
Psalm 72
Ephesians 3.1-12
Matthew 2.1-12

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.  Amen.

I want to read a few words and phrases and I hope you will recognize at least one or two of them. Ready?

  • Rosebud.
  • Verbal Kint is Keyser Soze.
  • Maybe this one: “Luke — I am your father.”

How many of you know what those have in common? Some of you have never heard of any of them and have no idea what I am talking about. But (spoiler alert, for those of you who’ve never seen Citizen Kane, The Usual Suspects, or Star Wars) each of them — Rosebud, Keyzer Soze, Darth Vader’s words to Luke Skywalker — each is on a list somewhere as one of the greatest “reveals” of all time. The reveal is the magician’s tool — it’s when the illusionist makes known something that was previously unknown. It’s also a literary term — the reveal is a plot device in a narrative, the moment in a story when the reader or the audience suddenly learns the mystery that had been hidden.

Tonight — Epiphany — this is the reveal. More than just the end of Christmastide, more than just another midwinter night, tonight is the night God reveals “the meaning and end of history.” Tonight God explains the mystery of history (pardon the rhyme). So in these few moments, I want us to look at four things: (1) the Mystery, (2) the Magi, (3) the Metamorphosis, and (3) the Mission.

First, remember the mystery

“In the beginning” – In the beginning there was God and the garden, the woman and the man. All was as God intended. There was harmony between God and man, between the man and the woman, between humanity and the cosmos. But when our first parents fell and disobeyed the one command God gave them, they fractured the world and forfeited the Garden. But remember the cryptic proclamation in Genesis 3 — when God cursed the serpent he said:

I will put enmity between you and the woman, 
and between your offspring and her offspring;
he shall bruise your head,
and you shall bruise his heel. (Gen. 3.15)

That’s the first seed of the mystery. God vowed not to leave us banished, exiled. Somehow, through Eve’s offspring, God would give us back the keys to the Garden and all the harmony we had there. From that point the mystery was unfolding — the promise to Abraham, the sacrifice of Isaac, the deliverance of Israel from slavery, Isaiah’s prophecy that “darkness will cover the earth” but a light will come (Isa. 60.2) — every event of salvation history was another clue to the mystery of God’s plan to get us back to the Garden.

2253052-curtainThen comes the reveal: The MagiNow after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” (Matt. 2.1-2)

We sing “We Three Kings” and our kids dress up as wise men and women in the Christmas pageant, but we don’t really know that much about the people Fr. Pfatteicher calls “[t]hese shadowy astrologers, traveling vaguely ‘from the east’ with their strange gifts, [who] symbolize more than we can ever say, more than we can ever know”? We don’t know that there were three, we don’t know they were “men,” we don’t know how long it took them to get to Jesus, we don’t know their names (outside legend). But we do know one thing, and it’s the final clue to the mystery — the Magi were Gentiles. They were pagans, not Jews. They were outside God’s family. But they came to worship the newborn king, and that showed us something about salvation: Salvation doesn’t come just to Jews who keep God’s law, it comes to the whole world, even Gentile astrologers, and that means it has to come by grace. St. Paul uses the word mysterion/mystery three times in tonight’s reading from Ephesians. After the Magi, now we know the mystery Paul knew, the mystery of Christ, the mystery which “was not made known to the sons of men in other generations,” the mystery is: The Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel. (Eph. 3.6) The Magi reveal that all along — God was coming to save us all.

Point three: The metamorphosis — Everybody knows a good magician never reveals his secrets, but God does, and in our story we see how God does it. To see it we just have to follow the theme of light in the bible. Tonight is about light, right? (The Magi follow a star shining in the sky, the light of the world coming down from heaven) Remember earlier in Isaiah the prophet said “A people who walked in darkness have seen a great light” (Isa. 9.2), and when we get to John’s gospel we see what that light is. Or, rather, who that light is. Jesus says “I am the light of the world.” (John 8.12) Then came the cross — on the cross, when Jesus was dying, what happened? There was darkness. Matt. 27: From the sixth hour there was darkness over all the land until the ninth hour. See what’s happening? The light of the world is being swallowed by darkness so we could come into the light. The light of the world being pushed out so we can be let back in.

And what happens? When we see what God did for us, we metamorphosize. We change. Paul says it just two chapters later in Ephesians: At one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light. (Eph. 5.8) The metamorphosis happens when we see that the light went down into darkness to bring us up into light, and that changes us, makes us lights.

Which leads to the last point: The pages of the bible have been rustling with mystery since the very beginning; the Magi revealed the mystery, which is the gospel of God’s grace; and we’ve morphed from children of darkness to children of light; so what do we do now?

That’s the Mission — St. Paul says he was made a minister of this gospel “to bring to light for everyone what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things, so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.” (Eph. 3.9b-10)

St. Paul’s mission, just like ours, is to bring this mystery to light for everyone around us. But how? Leslie Newbigin, the great missiologist, wrote a book called The Open Secret, and in it he said there are two kinds of missionaries. First, there are “pure evangelists” – they just preach; no social services, no deeds of mercy, just the message of the gospel. But Newbigin says “the logic of the gospel has always been too strong for them.” If a hungry man comes looking for food, shall we deny him in the name of the gospel? Of course not. So the missionary is drawn to build hospitals, schools, food banks. But then the pendulum swings so far that we have a second kind of missionary, the “social service” missionary. Again, the logic of the gospel is too strong. Jesus said it himself in Matthew 28 when he sent his disciples out into the world to make disciples, to baptize, and to teach. Not just to build hospitals, but to build them for God and then tell people why we built it. You see? For us to be light in the world, we have to do both — reveal the mystery, do good works, then tell people why we do them.

So — Now you know the reveal. Maybe you’ve never heard this until tonight, so you’re only just now coming into the light. That’s great — it’s called “becoming a Christian.” But the story doesn’t end there. Now you are the light of the world. Are we telling our story and doing good works? Newbigin says the church has been given a mystery, a priceless treasure, and it’s an “open secret”:

The treasure is nothing less than “the mysteries of God” (1 Cor. 4.1), “the mystery which was kept secret for long ages but is now disclosed and . . . made known to all nations . . .” (Rom. 16.25-26) . . . . It is the open secret of God’s purpose, through Christ, to bring all things to their true end in the glory of the triune God. It is open in that it is announced in the gospel that is preached to tall the nations; it is a secret in that it is manifest only to the eyes of faith. It is entrusted to those whom God has given the gift of faith by which the weakness and foolishness of the cross is known as the power and wisdom of God. It is entrusted to then not for themselves but for all the nations.

That’s our mission. That is Epiphany. We know the secret; now go tell it to the world.

Amen.

[[ Click for audio of the sermon ]]