Sunday, February 26, 2017

A Sermon for the Last Sunday of Epiphany

Today I am the guest preacher at the Church of the Nativity, in Northborough. One of the main parts of my work is clergy transitions and I worked with Nativity in the months leading up to their previous rector's retirement, through a lively interim period, and now six months into the arrival of their new rector. They are a great parish. The readings for this day, the last Sunday of Epiphany, can be found here.

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One important part of the search process for a new rector – and maybe the most important part - is the prayer and discernment that lead to the production of a parish profile. Essentially it’s a job description, but it’s more than that: it’s also an affirmation of faith and a vision statement. It’s in the parish profile that God’s people articulate their hopes and dreams for the future and then look for an ordained leader who shares that vision and who is willing to walk the journey together with the congregation toward God’s future. In your parish profile, you all wrote:

What We Know: In preparation for our search for a new rector we engaged well-known church consultants to help us answer the questions, “What’s important to us?” and “How ready are we to accept change?” About 130 parishioners — almost 100% of our average worship attendance — responded, most taking the time to write comments about their hopes for and concerns about the future of our church and the next person called to be our spiritual leader. The members of our parish told us their top four goals: 

  • Make necessary changes to attract families with children and youth to our church. 
  • Develop and implement a comprehensive strategy to reach new people and incorporate them into the life of the church. 
  • Strengthen the process by which members are called and equipped for ministry and leadership. 
  • Develop ministries that work toward healing those broken by life circumstances.
Make changes. Reach and incorporate new people. Empower and equip lay leadership. Heal the brokenhearted. And then you wrote this:

Who Will Help Us Get There? We seek a turnaround agent, a unique spiritual leader whom we believe, even now, is being prepared by God to lead Nativity and guide us in achieving our ambitious goals. We, in turn, are prepared to support our next rector spiritually, financially, and communally. We believe our next leader will strive to possess the attributes of 1 Timothy 3. 

  • Be a person of prayer and integrity, constantly seeking God's vision for our church and its ministry. 
  • Be a risk taker for God’s sake, willing to take on challenges and face failures, being led by the Holy Spirit. 
  • Lead and inspire us with humor and open communication to face our challenges and follow God's leading. 
  • Preach Bible-based sermons and lead Spirit-filled and joyful worship. 
  • Understand our desire to build God’s kingdom and equip all of us to evangelize and disciple those around us.
Today we come to the end of the Season of Epiphany; this season about light that shines in the darkness. And the darkness has not overcome it. On Wednesday your new rector, Fr. Chad, will invite you to journey into the holy season of Lent, your first together. Chad is no Moses, and you are not the ancient Israelites. But Chad is your duly elected and installed rector and you are God’s people. The forty days is an invitation to journey together toward the empty tomb and the promise to be God’s Easter people.

So why am I here today? Well, I missed you! It’s true that your search process is in the rear-view mirror. I’m here at the invitation of Chad and the vestry to check in with them after worship today, to see how things are going, to ask them what it’s been like so far and how our bishop and how I can be praying for you as the journey continues. I also want to remind all of you that the process of transition that began when Len announced his retirement is not yet over. Clergy transitions don’t end when the moving truck arrives from Colorado, or when the ministry is celebrated by the Bishop and parish. You are still in transition – still coming to grips with the ways that Chad was the answer to your prayers. To some extent what I’ve come to believe is that our whole lives, and the lives of congregations like this one, are about transition; when that stops we are no longer alive, because part of what it means to be alive is to be changing. And here’s a heads up: it won’t be over on Easter morning either. But as each day unfolds, Chad is less and less “the new rector” and simply your rector here at Nativity.

Today we gather together on the Mount of the Transfiguration, the culmination of this leg of the journey we call the Season after Epiphany. As you may recall, we began about seven weeks ago—on January 6—as we marked the arrival of the magi in Bethlehem, bearing their gifts for the newborn king. Since then we’ve remembered the Baptism of our Lord and in so doing, our own baptisms, because the Voice of God that claimed Jesus as “beloved of God” at the Jordan River also claims each of us and then seals us as “Christ’s own.” Forever. Over the past few weeks we’ve listened again to words of Jesus at the Sermon on the Mount, reminding us that we who have seen the light are called to be the light for the sake of the world. To let the light within us shine forth. That’s what this liturgical season has been about.

During this Epiphany Season our Epistle readings (until today) were coming from Paul’s first letter to the Church in Corinth. They were a challenging bunch there, in Corinth and by comparison they made Northborough look easy! By all accounts they were profoundly gifted and cosmopolitan. So when Paul tells them about spiritual gifts he is talking with people who have lots of them. The challenge they face, however, is that they are going in a hundred different directions. So Paul counsels them to remember that they are one body and then he reminds them, as I’m sure you all recall, that without faith, hope and love (and especially love) their gifts are nothing more than noisy gongs and clanging cymbals.

So here we are, once more on the Mount of the Transfiguration. Here we get a glimpse of Jesus in his full glory, fully human but also fully divine before coming down the mountain to journey into Lent. On the Mount of the Transfiguration, God is made manifest in Jesus, the Light of the world. God very often speaks on mountaintops in the Bible, maybe for the same reason that so many of us feel closer to God when we hike up a mountain and look out over the vista. We speak of “mountaintop experiences” as a metaphor for our spiritual epiphanies because the landscape itself very often helps to open our eyes to see God’s hand at work in the world around us.

In such moments we may have the experience of knowing God more fully and of being more fully known by God. So it’s not only Jesus who was transfigured on the Mount of the Transfiguration. God seeks to change us too. Like those first disciples called by the Sea of Galilee, and like those early followers in Corinth, you and I are called to seek and serve Christ in this time and place and when we do that, we are changed. Transfigured.

There is a shadow side here, however; or at least a temptation. Such moments are fleeting. It is tempting to want to try to hold onto them forever, and maybe even of trying to make them normative. I think that is primarily what is going on in the disciples’ desire to build booths on the Mount of the Transfiguration. In truth, every moment is fleeting. The good times, the hard times, the times of saying goodbye to a former rector and of saying hello to a new one: time is an ever flowing stream. Mountaintop moments in our lives are precious and a gift, for sure. But the journey of faith is not one long extended mountaintop experience. We are called to listen to the Voice of God in this story, which makes clear that we are called to listen to and then follow Jesus by putting one foot in front of the other. The challenge of faith is to live each moment; not to stay on a mountaintop in booths. We are a people of the Way, part of the Jesus Movement. And specifically we are called to be a people who are following Jesus on the Way of the Cross.

So liturgically, the wisdom of remembering the Transfiguration today is to prepare us to take the next steps in the journey of faith into Lent. Did I mention that begins this Wednesday when your rector will “…invite you, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent…” Whether or not you’ve made that day a part of your spiritual discipline in the past I encourage you all to show up this week as this congregation and your neighboring congregations across this diocese and across ecumenical lines resolutely set our faces toward Jerusalem.

Now there is one caveat I need to share with all of you. What I have said to you so far today is shaped by the Western Christian liturgical calendar. While there may be differences between Methodists and Lutherans and Roman Catholics and Episcopalians, we all follow this same basic path: from the arrival of the wise guys on Epiphany to the Jordan River and Jesus’ baptism, and then through some call stories and reflections on early Christian communities like the one in Corinth and then ultimately to the Mount of the Transfiguration. And then we come down from the mountain to Ash Wednesday and ultimately to Easter morning where “cross and Easter day attest, God in flesh made manifest.”

My own experience of the Christian tradition has been quite ecumenical but it has mostly been very western. I’ve now had three opportunities, however, to travel to the Holy Land, where I am especially reminded of the rich traditions of Orthodox faith that are rooted in the Church’s experience in the east: Greek Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox, Syrian Orthodox, Russian Orthodox... One of the surprises was the ever-present reminder that Christianity is, at its roots, an eastern religion that spread to the west. You feel that and you can smell the incense when you walk into a place like the Church of the Nativity- the original one, I mean, in Bethlehem!

Alexander Schmemman was the Dean of St. Vladimir’s Seminary in Crestwood, New York, a leading liturgical scholar in Orthodox Christianity in the twentieth century. A few years ago I read his little book on Orthodox Lenten practices, Great Lent: Journey to Pascha.  As much as I love the Epiphany season and find this journey we have been on makes so much sense to my western mind, reading Schmemman’s book changed the way I think about preparing for Lent. In Orthodoxy, the weeks leading up to “Great Lent” are very different from what I have been describing to you. In the five weeks before Lent, the Orthodox focus on five themes: Desire for God (the story of Zacchaeus), Humility (the Publican and the Pharisee), Return from Exile (the parable of the Prodigal Son), Last Judgment, and then finally, Forgiveness Sunday. The Orthodox are clearer than we have been in the west that Lent is not a time to wallow in guilt or shame, but is rather an invitation to enter more deeply into the mystery of God’s abundant love which then allows us to more fully embrace the Paschal mystery by becoming instruments of God’s peace and ambassadors of reconciliation as we participate in Christ’s victory over sin and death. Sin is the experience of division, opposition, separation, and hatred. The first chink in the armor of the mighty fortress of sin, Schmemman says, is forgiveness, which opens a pathway to unity, solidarity, and love. It is a breakthrough to a new reality, to God’s reality. “To forgive,” Schmemman writes, “is to reject the hopeless dead-ends of human relations and refer them to Christ.”

Orthodox Easter usually falls on a different day than our western Easter but this year the calendars will coincide. We’ll sing our alleluias together on April 16 and for a moment we’ll know that in Christ there really is no east nor west, in Him no south or north either. So today, in Orthodox congregations, it is Forgiveness Sunday (or Cheesefare Sunday as it is also called.)  On this last Sunday before Lent begins, there is an elaborate liturgical dance where each person in worship says to every other person there, “Forgive me, for I have sinned.”

Now I am not going to ask you to dance although I know that of all the congregations in our diocese, if I did, you’d be on your feet. But I want you to think about that for a moment: what it would be like today for you to ask each person here today for forgiveness. Each person. And then those beyond this room whom you have hurt as well.

Now I don’t need to tell you how hard it is to forgive someone who has hurt us very badly. But at the very least, even when we aren’t yet able to forgive someone, we can remember that God forgives all who confess their sins and are truly penitent. So the correct liturgical response to the one who says, “Forgive me for I have sinned” is not I forgive you”—because, to be honest, that just might not yet be true. Rather, the correct liturgical response is this: “God has forgiven you, be at peace.”  

Forgive me, for I have sinned. God has forgiven you, be at peace.

The spirit of Lent, Schmemman says, is an invitation to experience that mysterious liberation that makes us “light and peaceful,” by illuminating an inner beauty that he compares to “an early ray of the sun which, while it is still dark in the valley, begins to lighten up the top of the mountain.”  Can you picture that? Still dark in the valley, but the top of the mountain is light. Maybe that image gives us a connection between east and west. Maybe that is where the Mount of the Transfiguration converges with Forgiveness Sunday and takes us, as theologian Don Henley once put it, to “the heart of the matter”—which is indeed about forgiveness.

For today, I invite you to take a moment to reflect on what it is like to be on both sides of that liturgical response. To say those words to someone whom you have hurt: Forgive me, for I have sinned. And to hear those words spoken to you by your neighbor: God has forgiven you, be at peace. And then reflect on someone who has hurt you, and imagine them saying to you, Forgive me, for I have sinned. And even if you do not yet have it in your heart to let it go, at least imagine yourself saying to that person, knowing for that person, that God forgives them and desires peace for them.

Maybe during the forty days of Lent you will find that you need to go say these words for real to someone in person, or in a letter. We come here, after all, to do liturgy together as practice for our daily lives.  Forgive me, for I have sinned. God has forgiven you, be at peace.

May this simple prayer of confession lead you into a holy Lent as God’s faithful people here in Northborough and beyond, the light of the world and the salt of the earth, until once again on Easter morning we make our song at the grave, all of us together, from east and west and north and south, one great fellowship of love. Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.