Epiphany 2 January 16, 2011

This homily is different from the usual sort. It comes in the context of a discussion that began last week after breakfast on bullying in schools and grew, with reference to national events, into a broader concern with violence and incivility in our society and world. That discussion will continue this morning after breakfast. The homily begins with an introduction to the whole worship service; continues with the homily proper, intended as an introduction to some congregational comments; and then has a short list of some thoughts for going forward that the preacher came up with, reflecting on the readings. You are invited to add your own comments!

Isaiah 49:1-7                                                                        

1 Corinthians 1:1-9                                                             

John 1:29-42

 

Introduction to the Liturgy

 The Church that I first fell in love with was a very different worship experience. You came in, all silent and alone in mystical darkness, knelt on the hard floor and said your prayers, then a little bell rang, a priest appeared far off by the altar; he raced through the liturgy, reading it all himself, his back towards you and the other kneeling figures in the pews. When the lessons were read, it was the old King James version: very beautiful, but very hard to understand. At various points an acolyte rang a little bell and everyone looked up and crossed themselves.

When the bread – a large white wafer embossed with the image of a lamb holding a flag – was finally consecrated, the priest turned towards the congregation and said words from the gospel we read this morning: “Behold the Lamb of God, behold him that takest away the sins of the world.” Then you received Communion on your tongue and your sins were taken away – or you hoped they were, at least for a little while until you sinned some more.

I loved that Church; I still miss it sometimes: the quiet, the beauty, the mystery, the seriousness of it. I owe much to it, even today. But it was a very “encapsulated” experience – meaning it didn’t connect very well to the rest of life, the rest of my week, the world going on outside the church doors. However beautiful, it was in the end mechanical – the Bread Lamb somehow “took away” my sins, which were many and for which I felt very guilty; but I couldn’t explain how or why or what this might have to do with equipping me to lead a happier or better life.

Encountering again, in today’s gospel, those words about the Lamb of God, brought back all these memories for me as I prayed and thought about how to offer here this morning a worship experience that does help us all to connect the readings, the whole eucharistic action, with where and who we are in this world of today. In my mind, as in yours, this week has been especially the terrible incident in Tucson and the national reappraisal that has occasioned. The anger, the sorrow, the fear – our desire to come together, but the reminder of our deep divisions. How can our worship this morning offer light and healing, courage and comfort, truth and love, to us – and  through us to the world?

 I have chosen an unusual translation – really it’s a paraphrase, not a literal translation – of the readings for this morning (The Message). I’ve even used it for the psalm, which we will pray antiphonally, side to side, rather than singing as we usually do. You will find this jarring, but that is the intent: we need to listen anew, listen up, to the word of God, be challenged and confronted by it. I will invite your thoughts after I offer a few of my own in the homily.

I would not want to do this every Sunday, but it seems to me important to do it – or things like it – every now and then. Worship is not meant to be “encapsulated” but to transform us and remind us of who we really are, the Body of Christ, the Lamb of God whose mission and ministry is nothing less than to take away the sins of the world. Communion is not meant to be mechanical, but to draw us into full participation in the life of God here and now in this broken and sinful world that God made and loves and for which God gave his Son.

 

Homily

 Let’s start with those words from the gospel with which I introduced our worship this morning. John the Baptizer sees Jesus coming towards him and declares: “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” What does this mean? What does it have to do with us and our being the Lamb of God?

Well, we know that at its heart, this is about sacrifice. Lambs were sacrificed, offered to heal the separation caused by sin and reconcile and restore the people to their God. But Jesus became himself the Lamb of God, himself the sacrifice, to reconcile and restore us. We act this out every Sunday in the Eucharist: when we break the consecrated Bread, we make present again the sacrifice of Jesus. And then – and this is what we tend to forget – we take that Bread, that Lamb, into ourselves so that we may become truly him. So we are to be ourselves sacrifices for the world, to reconcile, to heal, to restore.

This doesn’t immediately tell us anything, I think, about gun laws or whom to vote for, or taxes or budget cuts or any of the other issues that divide us. It speaks at a different level: what does it mean that our mission is to be healing and that we ourselves, our security and safety even, is not the ultimate point? Think about how it must have been for Jesus, coming to John for baptism, casting his fate with the sinful and suffering world in which he lived. (And remember that his time was far more violent than ours; his government and his taxes were far more oppressive.) Yet all through his living, all his teaching, and then his final confrontation with evil in the religious and civil powers of his day – think about how fearless he was. He trusted always in God. He was very detached about himself and his own safety, as long as he knew he was attached to God. God was his safety; God alone. What does this say about how we are to be in our world today?

Then I invite your attention to the first reading, from Isaiah. This is one of what are called the Suffering Servant Songs in Isaiah. Christians have read them as prophecies about Christ, but in their Jewish context they were talking about Israel itself. Israel is to be the suffering servant of the Lord. Israel is given the greater mission of being a light to the nations. So, again, these are words for us: we are baptized into this mission, not narrowly to convert people to our religion or get them into our church, but to spread God’s love, God’s reign, throughout the world. And this is a mission of service, of love, ultimately of suffering – not of violence or coercion or politics conducted to put ourselves in control or on top. You can see why Jesus was seen as the Suffering Servant. Can you see how we could be Suffering Servants?

Then we’ll want to take a look at the reading from St. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians. See how Paul connects himself to Jesus and through Jesus to God’s plan. This is the opposite of what I called “encapsulated religion.” Everything Paul does he does to bring people to Christ, and to do that in a way that completely transforms their lives. They’re no long subject to the values and fears of this world. Now they live in God’s world. “God himself,” says Paul, “is right alongside to keep you steady and on track until things are all wrapped up by Jesus. God, who got you started in this spiritual adventure, shares with us the life of his Son and our Master Jesus. He will never give up on you. Never forget that.” Paul was writing those words to the little house church in Corinth, but of course they are also spoken to this little church in Weare. So what does this say to us, as we pray about how we are to be present in this world into which God has brought us, for which God has baptized us and marked us as Christ’s own forever?

I invite your own thoughts here – prayerful reflections for us all to listen to, so that together we may be what we are, the Body of Christ, the Lamb of God.

 

Some Thoughts for Going Forward

I’ve tried to list a few things that have come to me, praying about all this:

  • Fear is always the enemy. We all feel fear. The media, the 24/7 information cycle, exploits our fear. The most important thing is not to be captured by fear. Always remember that you are not alone. God is with you.
  • Seek and build community. Fear drives us back into our separate little fortresses, listening only to the voices that reinforce our own positions. Work against that. Seek out others, others who are different and have different perspectives. Listen to them. Try to see where they’re coming from. Speak out of love, ready to admit that each of us only has a piece of the whole.
  • Be prepared to fail. Jesus failed – certainly in the short run. If you don’t know failure, you haven’t reached boldly enough. That’s why we believe in heaven. In the end, it’s not about winning or losing here on earth. It’s about living a life here in confident hope of the greater life we will share with God hereafter.
  • Understand that meaningful change in society is a long, slow, messy process. But if God can be patient and work through it, so can we. Don’t give up. Patience, a sense of humor, the ability to recognize when we’ve overstepped and apologize and correct course – they’re the stuff of successful daily living.
  • Find joy, even in the midst of terrible things. If you’ve ever been in a Third World country, you have seen how people with nothing can find joy and celebrate life.
  • Keep reconnecting with God. The final words of the psalm this morning are true: “Your [God’s] love and truth are all that keeps me together.”

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