III Epiphany – January 24, 2010
The Episcopal Church of St. Paul
(the Rev’d Dr.) Elizabeth Kaeton, rector and pastor
Everyone, it seems, is looking for a sign. Or, at least, they are looking at signs in the world and wondering what in the world it all means.
That’s not unlike the people in the time of Nehemiah, about whom we heard in the first of this morning’s lessons.
Now, Nehemiah was part of the royal household of King Ataxerxes , when Judah was part of the province of the Persian Empire. He had heard from his brother, Hanani, of the desolate condition of Jerusalem and was granted a leave of absence from the King to help restore his beloved city.
When the priest, Ezra, opened the books of the scriptures in front of the Water Gate in Jerusalem, the people were inspired to learn more about God, and from that flowed the miracle of the rebuilding of that ancient city in an amazing fifty-two day span.
This story has inspired many faithful Christians who seek to renew the inner cities of this country to name their projects after Nehemiah. No signs. No wonders. Just the miracle of people inspired by God to do the hard work of restoration and renewal.
And yet, we still look for signs and wonders and miracles to come from above and land in our laps – or front yards, or cities, or churches.
We build up our expectations about our leaders to unbelievable, unattainable proportions, and then, when change doesn’t come as quickly as we’d like, we are just as quick to cry and moan and wail and turn our backs, looking for the next great Messiah. Someone to save us from ourselves. Someone to make us feel good again. We make a direct connection between our affluence and God’s favor.
Where are the signs in this Season of the Epiphany in our time? What are they and what can we learn from them? This morning, I want to talk about three secular epiphanies, three signs in our world.
There are many, many more, but for the sake of brevity, I’ll focus our attention on these three and how the real epiphany is not out there, somewhere, but in here, within you and me.
I am indebted to my ‘fashionista’ friends for the first ‘sign’, without whom I wouldn’t have known that last week was Men’s Wear Fashion in Milan. Yes. Who knew?
The buzz, apparently, was all about fashion designer, Dame Vivienne Westwood, who presented a menswear show in which the models were supposed to look like "rough-sleepers" - AKA "the homeless".
It was reported that: “The catwalk was carpeted with old cardboard boxes. The models’ hair was disheveled and discolored by something silvery. This, said Westwood, was to make the young men look “like they were sleeping rough and they’d got frost in their hair”. The style is called ‘homeless chic’.
Reportedly, the crowed of “several hundred fashion experts burst into rapturous applause as the cameras flashed."
Dame Westwood was not entirely without empathy. She conceded that she herself had no experience of being homeless. “The nearest I have come to it is going home and finding I don’t have my door key,” she said. “I mean, what a disaster that is, dying to get in your house and you can’t. And what if it wasn’t there any more?”
I am not making this up.
So, I’m going to ask because somebody has to: Have we lost our minds? “Homeless chic?” Have we lost our sense of compassion? Does this mean that the obvious greed and conspicuous consumerist consumption which brought us to is point is, alas, not dead? Have we learned nothing from the fragile economic situation in which we find ourselves?
At long last, have we lost all sense of decency?
The second sign came to me from John Bennett, without whom, I would not be able to keep tabs on one of my favorite writers, Peggy Noonan. I disagree with about 95% of what she says, but my, oh my, the way she says it! The woman clearly knows how to turn a phrase. She is also no stranger to hyperbole – especially when she smells blood on the water.
She’s been looking at the election process – especially in Virginia, New Jersey and Massachusetts – and writes “Our national politics are reflecting what appears to be going on geologically, on the bottom of the oceans and beneath the crust of the Earth: the tectonic plates are moving.”
See what I mean? What a powerful metaphor. And, you know, she may be right. Is the earthquake in Haiti a sign? Yet another sign after Katrina?
An earthquake – like the one in Haiti – is due to a shift in tectonic plates in the earth. I find it sadly, tragically ironic, that the poorest nation in the world has been further devastated by this shift. Is there a sign in this? A message we ought to heed?
Is there theo-political significance to the tragedy in Haiti, as there was in the devastation after Katrina?
Which brings me to the third ‘epiphany’ – Pat Robertson – who was right about one thing concerning Haiti. (Don’t get excited. Even a broken clock is right twice a day.) If you don’t already know or have banished his hideous remarks from your memory banks, he upbraid Haitians for their “pact with the devil.”
Robertson said Haitians joined forces with Satan’s Army: “They said, ‘We will serve you if you’ll get us free from the French.’ True story. And so the devil said, ‘Ok, it’s a deal.’ They kicked the French out … ever since, they have been cursed by one thing after another.”
His callous comments drew immediate pushback, and rightly so, but Robertson is right about one thing – we Americans equate prosperity as proof of God’s favor.
People of all faith traditions believe God rewards those he loves best with material blessings. This idea is not new. It has been part of the fabric and soul of this country since the Puritans landed with their understanding of divine enlightenment and armed with their Calvinist work ethic.
This theological position is now known as “The Prosperity Gospel” which maintains that God wants us to have bigger homes, better cars, that job promotion, and better health.
It is most often linked to the Word of Faith movement and to its leaders – Kenneth Hagin, Kenneth Copeland, Oral Roberts and now America’s most popular preacher – Joel Osteen. Osteen urges his followers to “expect God’s favor.”
Indeed. I don’t know about you, but I grew up being very carefully taught that if you tithe to the church, God will pay all your bills.
Like most television evangelists, Robertson preaches the “Law of Reciprocity” – give money to God and he’s going to give it back to you ten times over.
Embedded in this theology, however, is the misguided belief that material goodies come our way because we’ve been faithful to God. And if bad things are happening? Then, we need to straighten up, fly right and return to God.
Where do Robertson, Hagin, Copeland, Roberts and Osteen get this idea? Well, from the Bible, of course. This passage from Nehemiah is often cited as prima facia evidence.
No longer is John 3:16 “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” the most quoted Bible verse. It’s been replaced by Jeremiah 29:11 “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”
We profess, however, to be followers of Jesus, whom we name the Christ - not John or Jeremiah. We follow the teachings of the Messiah. What does Jesus say?
This morning we receive d a copy of the first sermon he preached in the synagogue in his hometown of Nazareth in Galilee. He read from the scrolls of the prophet Isaiah which tell us that God will bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free.
When he was finished he rolled up the scrolls, gave it back to the attendant, sat down, and preached one of the shortest sermons in the history of homiletics.
“Today," he said, "this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
Behold, Jesus, the original orthodox revisionist, preaching about the incarnation.
Which, in my book, is the only sermon to preach, if you want to be true to the ‘Good News’, the gospel of Jesus Christ. The Incarnation is the real epiphany, the real miracle of God. The rest is just details.
You see, it’s really not about who voted for whom or who wears what or the shifting of tectonic plates. Jesus did promise us: “In this world, there will be trouble.” (John 16:33) and he said, “The poor you will always have with you, and you can help them any time you want. But you will not always have me. “(Mark 14:7).
As I look at the signs in Haiti and Milan, in Virginia, New Jersey and my home state of Massachusetts, as in our own neighborhoods and towns and cities and this church, I do not have answers, but I do have some questions.
What if our eyes and ears were opened to possibility, like the eyes and ears of those who heard Ezra read them the scriptures?
What if our eyes and ears were opened to what Jesus has to say to us this morning? What if we believed – really believed – in the Incarnation, and not the Madison Ave. hype about Christmas?
What if you were one of the signs and wonders of God?
What if you – yes, you! – were the miracle God was wanting to unfold and reveal to the world about the power God can do and the miracles God can perform through unworthy, broken clay pots of humanity when we open our hearts to compassion and open our minds to possibility?
St. Paul reminds the ancient church in Corinth as he reminds us today that we are all part of the Body of Christ.
We are – this church is – the living incarnation of Jesus. Paul says, “Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.”
And “If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.” (I Cor 12:12-31a)
St. Paul also tells us, “God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers; then deeds of power, then gifts of healing, forms of assistance, forms of leadership, various kinds of tongues. But strive for the greater gifts.” Strive for the greater gifts.
I don’t know if we can rebuild our country or our church budget in fifty-two days, but I’ll tell you this: When we put our faith into action, when we live out in our lives what we profess with our lips, miracles happen.
I have seen it and I know it to be true.
Jesus says, “Today scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”
I believe that to be true. I believe scripture is fulfilled in the power of the Incarnation – when you and I embody the beliefs we espouse and put them into works of compassion and mercy, kindness and justice.
Today, scripture is fulfilled – made flesh, made incarnate, manifested, is an epiphany – in your hearing.
Of that, there is not a question in my mind.
The only question is: Are you listening? Amen.