I've been snowed out! Today I was supposed to be at St. Luke's Church in Worcester. But they wisely cancelled services, in the midst of yet another snowstorm in central Massachusetts. Last weekend the parish said goodbye to a rector who faithfully served them for seven years, and in two weeks they will welcome an interim. So part of my job was to be there "in between" that time. While I have missed that opportunity, below is what I would have said had I been among them today. The readings for this day can be found here. I do look forward to beginning the Lenten journey with St. Luke's on Ash Wednesday.
In today’s Old Testament reading, we have a story about a transition in leadership. Now let me be really clear here: I love Warren, but Warren is no Elijah, and so far as I know, he has not departed from here on a chariot of fire. And I love Mark, who will arrive as your interim in two weeks, but he is no Elisha, either.
Even so, it’s interesting to me that we get a transition story today. And there are plenty of them in the Bible. In my travels as Canon to the Ordinary I’m more in tune with such stories. I think of old Isaac blessing his son, Jacob, even if he is tricked into it. And there is the story of Moses passing the baton to Joshua, son of Nun as God’s people stand on the brink of entering the Promised Land. And there is the story of King Saul and King David and then David and Solomon. And there is this story of Elijah and Elisha. And in the New Testament the really big transition story that comes after Jesus death and resurrection, and ascension, where he passes on his authority to the twelve who are waiting for the Holy Spirit on Pentecost. We get a preview of that transition this morning on the Mount of the Transfiguration, where both Moses and Elijah make cameo appearances.
Transitions. In December I met with your vestry and we talked a fair amount about this day and the time that lies ahead for you as a congregation. It’s never as clean as it sometimes comes across in the Bible – although if you read between the lines in today’s reading you can pretty much sense that Elisha definitely has some anxiety about what lies ahead. I think we need to own that, because there is a part of us along the line that got mis-educated in the Bible and in the faith. In the swirl of changes we experience in the world, there is a part of us that wants Church to stay the same. But I submit to you that the whole point of this Epiphany season and of the Incarnation that culminates on the Mount of the Transfiguration is that we are in the change business. We are meant to be changed from glory to glory as we prayed today. The God who has taken on flesh to dwell among us enters a world where the only constant is change. And the gift of Christmas is Emmanuel – God-with-us through all the chances and changes of this earthly life, not a God who holds time still.
And that is the good news I hope you hear today, and not that you simply trust me about this but that as we come down from the mount and begin the journey toward Lent, that it will be a season for you to renew your trust in the living God. And if you hear nothing else at all today, that will be enough.
In just a couple of weeks you will have an interim here who is a faithful priest, but the real work that lies ahead is not for him to do alone, but for all of you to share. What is this work God has given you, St. Luke’s, to do at this moment in your history?
It is most definitely not to turn the clock back to the glory days of Anchutz or Elvin or Stoddart or Hicks. Nor is it to fast-forward to the arrival of a new rector. It is, rather, to be fully present right now and in this next year or so to the work God gives you to do, as individuals and as a Christian community, in service (as your website puts it) in the heart of the Commonwealth. What are the opportunities? What are the challenges? There is an invitation to be really real about all of that before anything else happens.
Let’s start with what can go wrong before we dream of what can go right. We’ve been reading through this Epiphany season from Paul’s Letter to the Church in Corinth – four weeks in a row the epistle came from Paul’s first letter to the early Christian community in Corinth and today it comes from his second letter to that same group. The context of that letter is that the believers in Corinth were being pulled in a hundred different directions based on their own ego needs. Paul’s message to that congregation is consistent: you are one Body, with many members. So act like it! The eye cannot say to the ear, I don’t need you. When you pursue your own agendas, he says, you sound like a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. So focus on faith, hope, and love – especially love. What does that look like? More patience and more kindness and more gentleness. Not so much the arrogance and being rude. The real danger for any congregation, with or without a rector in place, is to allow things to be “rent asunder.” That is what can go wrong.
The opportunity – and the invitation—is to come together for the sake of the gospel and for the sake of Jesus Christ; it is to choose love! It is to embrace your baptismal ministries and to work together through this season of change.
Yet because we are human and no one will get it right every day, this season of change is a season for forgiveness. Bishops and canons and rectors and interim rectors and wardens and vestries are not perfect, and because sorting through complex issues like music ministry is always hard (and harder still in times of transition) it means that you will need to embrace that call of the gospel to forgive. How many times? Well, you remember what Jesus said…way more than seven.
Since I have mentioned music, let me say just a word about that knowing that there is a danger of moving from preaching to meddling here. It has been said that the one who sings, prays twice. Music is a form of prayer – and it touches our souls. But music in the Church is as often divisive as inclusive. What we like is different. My I-Pod has a lot of Bruce Springsteen on it and very little country music. Yours might be different. It is the same with sacred music. Who decides what is sacred and which instrument should be used and which book the hymns are to come from? A gentle reminder in this season of change that the goal here, as well, is to praise God from whom all blessings flow – not to make sure our favorite hymns are the ones that are sung. This, too, requires faith, hope, and love, and especially love.
And this, I believe, really is the gift: that this season of change and maybe even some holy chaos gives all of you an opportunity to be transfigured and to grow closer to the risen Christ. For it is the risen Christ we serve, not ourselves. As Paul put it in today’s epistle reading to the baptized in Corinth: For it is the God who said, "Let light shine out of darkness," who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.
So today is the Last Sunday after the Epiphany. That word, epiphany, comes from two Greek words: epi-phanos; literally it means “to shine forth.” The Light of Christ has come into the world so that we might allow that light to shine through us. And not only within the walls of this little church with the red doors on a Sunday morning, but at our dinner tables and in our classrooms and at the vestry meetings and in your workplaces and out on the streets of Worcester.
Epi-phanos. Shine forth! For it is the God who said, "Let light shine out of darkness," who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.
Liturgically, we are about to transition as well. Transitions all around so get used to them! Embrace them! I will be blessed to be with you on Wednesday evening as this Lenten journey begins – so I’ll save my Ash Wednesday sermon for then. But beyond Wednesday, and into the Second Sunday of Lent when your interim rector begins and then beyond that to the empty tomb, we will find ourselves reflecting on the wilderness. It’s all over the Bible, you know: 80% of the Torah takes place in the Sinai Desert. Exodus. Leviticus. Numbers. Deuteronomy . Four/fifths of the Torah is about what it means to have left the leeks and melons and slavery of Egypt behind in search of the Promised Land, a land flowing with milk and honey. If that isn’t transition, I don’t know what is!
Our friend Elijah goes out for forty days in the wilderness and it’s there that he hears “the still, small voice of God” – or if you prefer the newer translations, “the sound of sheer silence.” It’s out in the wilderness that Jesus goes to be baptized and as we’ll hear next weekend, where he will be driven by Satan to be tested for forty days and forty nights. And it is into the wilderness that we are getting ready to journey through the forty days and nights of Lent. Like the Israelites, I pray that you will find surprising gifts along the way: daily bread, and water enough. Like Elijah, I pray that you will listen for the still small voice of God. Jesus, I pray that you will be ministered to by angels. The wilderness is not a punishment – it’s where God finds us.
Many of us tend to prefer mountaintops. That, I think, is why those disciples are tempted to build three booths there. We like the vista, the clarity, the air, the proximity to God. But Moses and Elijah and Jesus aren’t looking for booths because they cannot be confined. All three are wilderness people – people who trust that when all is stripped away, there is only God; or more accurately, God and the companions God gives us along the way to love.
May you be ministered to by angels in the days ahead – and find that there is water enough for each day and daily bread and miracles to pay attention to and to give thanks for. All of these are sure signs of God’s presence in your midst. There may be some circling about and getting lost and doubling back; after all it took forty years for the Israelites to find their way to the Promised Land.
So be not afraid. Keep your eyes on the prize and put your whole trust in the living God, the one who points us to Jesus, the beloved. Listen to him.