Of Post-it Notes and the Gospel

a sermon for the 3rd Sunday the Epiphany

“Epiphany” isn’t a word people use very often.  It means “manifestation, striking appearance, revealing.”  In the church, it describes how Jesus was revealed to be the Son of God.  Gradually, over several occasions – his baptism, the wedding at Cana, his first sermon in the temple, walking on water, the transfiguration – the disciples came to know who Jesus truly was: the Son of God, the messiah.  Of course, these events didn’t cause Jesus to become divine; they only revealed something that had been true all along.  Instead, these and other miraculous events caused the disciples to have a flash of insight, an epiphany.  Last weekend, I had an epiphany…

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The Year of the Lord’s Favor

“Epiphany” isn’t a word people use very often. It means “manifestation, striking appearance, revealing.” In the church, it describes how Jesus was revealed to be the Son of God. Gradually, over several occasions – his baptism, the wedding at Cana, his first sermon in the temple, walking on water, the transfiguration – the disciples came to know who Jesus truly was: the Son of God, the messiah. Of course, these events didn’t cause Jesus to become divine; they only revealed something that had been true all along. Instead, these and other miraculous events caused the disciples to have a flash of insight, an epiphany.

Last weekend, your vestry and I had a similar experience on our annual retreat – we had an epiphany. We traveled to Camp Gravatt to plan out the coming year. We were led by a gifted facilitator, a priest named (appropriately enough) Grant Wiseman. Our goal was to figure out how we might lead this parish to become a stronger and healthier community. Over the course of the weekend, we shared our deep love for St. Simon & St. Jude, and we talked a great deal about the mission and ministry of our parish.

Our epiphany came when Father Grant took us through a series of videos titled Celebrate What’s Right With The World. These videos helped us change our perspective on a few things that have been causing us concern. As we watched the videos, we began to realize that by changing our perspective we could change the life of our parish. Instead of concentrating on problems, we began to look at all our strengths as a parish. What’s working well? What can we go out and celebrate? And as we looked, we began to appreciate our strengths and think about ways we can make them even better.

Our epiphany was that God has already blessed us richly, and that we have a great many opportunities for growth – enthusiastic growth.

One example of how our perspective changed was when we looked at how much of our facility is used by groups from the community. All of us have long appreciated that SSSJ isgrounded by our outreach projects. We toil in the pumpkin patch for an entire month to raise money to donate to charitable organizations. We serve hotdogs downtown on Saturdays. We make up snack packs for some of the least privileged children at Oak Pointe Elementary each week. We donate food and clothing to Sharing God’s Love, buy toys for children at Christmas, give away Easter baskets to abused and neglected children. These are amazing programs that involved a great many of our members. We should celebrate these projects!

But as wonderful as all these projects are, our greatest outreach ministry is the way we

share our facilities with the rest of the community. Every day, hundreds of people pass through our doors in search of a better life. The Lunch Box chapter of AA is one of the largest in the Columbia area and it meets 6 days a week. There’s not a week that goes by that someone from AA doesn’t tell me how important this particular chapter has been in changing his or her life. The New Beginnings chapter of Narcotics Anonymous began meeting about a year ago. It grew very quickly, and they have now started a second weekly meeting. Boy Scout Troop 312 has called St. Simon & St. Jude home for twenty years. In that time, we have sponsored dozens of Eagle Scouts and helped hundreds of boys become more self-reliant citizens. Venture Scouts and Girl Scouts are also active here. Meanwhile, two nights a week, we provide a place of recovery for court-ordered and voluntary domestic abuse counseling groups.

Open DoorsAll of these groups gather in our church because we welcome them in. And as the vestry began to reflect on it, we began to realize that one of our greatest strengths lies in our willingness to open our doors to the community – even to those who choose to worship someplace else. We began to change our perspective, and see these groups not as something outside of who we are, but a constituent part of our church and our identity in the community. Over the years, St. Simon & St. Jude has become a Community Cathedral, a place where everyone in the community is welcome.

God has blessed us richly in many other areas as well. We have a music program that is far better than we could ever afford. We have creative and willing teachers and young people who are engaged and want to participate in the life of the parish. We are a diverse church – racially, politically, theologically, and spiritually – and we welcome and support each other regardless of differences.

At the same time, we recognized the need to improve in some key areas. We want to work harder an making our worship more engaging and enthusiastic. We want to foster more fellowship and study through small groups. We want to help all of our members identify the gifts God has blessed them with. And we want to do a better job of telling the world who we are at St. Simon & St. Jude and invite others to join us.

In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus returns from his retreat in the desert “filled with the Holy Spirit.” And he goes to the temple and reads a passage from Isaiah.

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
     because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
     and recovery of sight to the blind,
     to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

The spirit of the Lord is upon us as well. He has sent us to proclaim release to those addicted to alcohol and drugs. He has given us a place that serves the entire community, changing lives and strengthening young men and women. He filled us with a diverse and creative congregation.

All of these things, our incredible strengths and our opportunities for improvement, combine to make us a unique place in the kingdom of God. We are who we are, not because of what we can’t do, but because of who we already are. All it takes is for us to open our eyes, see what’s already right in our parish, and build on that. All it takes is being open to the epiphany of God’s already abundant presence in our church and our lives.

Let us proclaim this year, as the year of the Lord’s favor at St. Simon & St. Jude.

The Journey

a sermon for the Feast of the Epiphany

There is always a lot of traveling that goes on during the holiday season. Everyone is going somewhere – either going to visit someone, or preparing for one of their loved ones to come visit them. And so it may come as no surprise that even the Scriptures have described a lot of traveling over the past several weeks. A few weeks ago, we heard the story of Mary visiting her cousin Elizabeth. Mary had just learned from the angel, Gabriel, that she was going to bear a son, Jesus. And so she went to stay with her cousin for a while. Mary had to travel about 60 miles to her cousin’s house, which is about the distance from here to Augusta. She traveled on foot and it took a while to get there. It wasn’t an easy trip; you had to be committed to travel in those days.

Then we heard the story of Joseph and Mary traveling from Nazareth to Bethlehem for the census and tax collection. That’s a distance of 80 miles, something like walking from here to Greenville. Not a trip you’d take lightly.

Finally, today we heard the story about the wise men, or kings, if you prefer, who traveled to find the infant Jesus. The kings actually had names: Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar. We don’t really know how far they traveled, but we do know that they came from the East, and that the trip took about two years. So it was a very long and dangerous journey. We also know that although we call them kings, or wise men, they were probably really astronomers. They were used to looking for signs in the heavens. One night, they looked up, and they saw something they had never seen before. They saw a star brighter than any they had ever seen before. So they decided to go and find out what it meant and they began their incredible journey.

Now there are three things we can learn from the kings’ journey. The first is the importance of being attentive – being watchful and aware. The wise men began their journey because they noticed something new in the sky, something that other people didn’t notice. Millions of people look up in the sky every night, but lack the understanding of what they are seeing. Or maybe they just allow themselves to be lulled into a dull sense of sameness, a sense of “same-oh, same-oh.”

Just the other day, I was driving down Lake Mary Boulevard, when I noticed a new hotel that was being built. They had to have been working on it for a long time, because hotels don’t just pop up overnight. And yet, I had never noticed it before a few days ago. All of the sudden – bam! – a new hotel!

How often to we forget to look around us and see what God is doing in the world? We drive to work, or drive to school, always traveling the same route, not expecting anything different to happen at all. And as a result, we see only what we expect to see; we miss the new thing that’s happening right in front of our eyes. But the kings were watchful and aware that something out of the ordinary was happening in the sky. The were watching for signs from God, and they saw it.

The second thing we learn from this story is the importance of being open to something new. Be receptive. The kings did not know exactly what was going to happen to them. We never know when we begin a journey exactly what’s going to happen. When our kids were little, we never really knew how long a trip to my parent’s house was going to take. Sometimes it took a four hours, sometimes it took ten hours, all depending on what was going on at the time. We never know what’s going to happen, especially on a big expedition like the kings were on. They had actually planned to visit Mary and Joseph and the baby, and then go back by the same route they came. But something happened that told them, “No. Don’t go back that way. Change your plan. Go back by a different route.” And so, Herod couldn’t harm Jesus.

The greatest discoveries in the world happen when they were least expected. They happen when we are open to the voice of the Spirit.

The third thing we learn is the importance of being faithful. A journey like theirs required real commitment. There’s an old saying that goes, “work as if everything depends on you, pray as if everything depends on God.” The wise men certainly had the faith to follow God’s lead. They were led, Mary was led, Joseph was led – all of the faithful travelers in scripture were led by God. God acted, and they responded to God. And in their response, they had the faith to act boldly.

Of course all of us are on journeys, too. Some of us are on a journey from middle age to older age, some of us are traveling from young adulthood to greater independence and maturity. And all of us are on a journey from God and back to God. We are all traveling on several kinds of journey at the same time. But the particular journey I want to call your attention to is the journey of this congregation. This congregation that has been here for so long, is on its own journey. And yet sometimes we fall into the same routine, we have lost our watchfulness and awareness of what God is doing in our common lives as a Christian community. Maybe we’re missing the signs that are already around us.

In a couple of weeks, your vestry and I will be traveling a long, long way. We’ll be traveling all the way to Camp Gravatt. Instead of a star, we’ll be following a retreat leader who is going to help us see the signs that God has already given us. And we’ll try to envision what God is calling us to do and to be here and now.

There are lots of ways we can be more attentive, more alert to the signs around us. We can pray. We can change our routine to shake things up. We can spend time more productively, setting aside our cell phones and iPads, getting off of Facebook, and actually talking with each other. All of these are ways that we can be attentive to what God is calling us to do now, and how we can be responsive to God’s call. It will require us to be attentive, to be watchful and alert. It will require us to be open to something new. And it will require us to have faith to follow wherever God is leading us to go.

And it will require one more thing – our gifts. It will require each and every one of us to bring our gifts, our own talents and skills, to the table. Because just as the wise men brought gold, frankincense and myrrh, we, too, have gifts to offer God. We just need to figure out what those gifts are, and be ready to use them to accomplish God’s mission in the world.