Sunday, January 16, 2011

Come and see

A little less than twelve years ago, I had just graduated from college. I was Roman Catholic, which was very relevant to my formation, but in terms of my practice at the time, it mainly meant that it was Roman Catholic churches that I occasionally tried to attend – maybe once every few months or so but didn't quite feel I belonged at. I knew I wanted God to be in my life, but didn't quite know how that worked in my new-found adulthood.

My fiancée told me about a small church on Fourteen Mile Road where she had attended an Earth Day program a few months earlier. She read about the program in the Oakland Press, attended, and thought that the church seemed like a place with warm, welcoming people and a very real sense of the presence of the Holy Spirit. She suggested we could try going there together.

I was a little wary of this "Episcopal Church." When I was younger, I went to my piano teacher's funeral at St. James in Birmingham. I mainly remembered that they used odd, old language; all the verbs seemed to end in "eth": abideth, comforteth, endeth... Growing up, the Catholic Church I attended was called "St. Thomas More," and I had the vague awareness that its patron was killed by some predecessors to the Episcopalians. I told my fiancée about my apprehension that the Episcopalians might end up chopping off my head also. She didn't think it was likely. I asked, "Really?" She said, "Come and see." I came here. My eyes were opened. It changed my life. And so far, my head still seems attached to my shoulders. So thank you.

We find ourselves here today in the midst of the Epiphany season. Epiphany comes from the Greek word for "appearing" or "becoming visible." Back in December, I talked to you about faith. If faith is about believing even when we can't see, Epiphany celebrates the times we do begin to see God in the world.

This whole season is about God's presence in the world coming into focus. We start with those Magi: wise folks from far away, outside the Jewish tradition, who recognized that something great was going on, and came to see the newborn Jesus. In the Eastern Orthodox tradition, Epiphany is a three-fold celebration. First, it celebrates the Nativity: Jesus' birth, and appearing to shepherds and magi. Second, it celebrates Jesus' baptism, when Jesus' divine nature became more widely known (how much more widely known varies by which Gospel account you read). Third, on that same day January 6th, they celebrate the Wedding at Cana, Jesus' first miracle, that let more people see that awesome power was at work in the world.

In the Episcopal Church, we stretch these readings out over an entire season between Christmas and Lent, and add even more examples that reveal the awesome power of God in the world, starting with the star and the Magi, and ending with the Transfiguration right before Lent. Splendid accounts of God making Godself known not only to the faithful, but to all sorts and conditions of people.

But today's lessons put _us_ on the spot. Today's lessons remind us that we have a role in this process of Epiphany. We are baptized into the body of Christ, which means that sometimes that hands and mouths and hearts that do God's work of revealing Godself to the world are our hands and mouths and hearts. Sometimes it is we who are called to show Christ to the world. The lessons today talk about this. Come and see…

In the Isaiah lesson, the Narrator, who bible scholars often call "Deutero-Isaiah," is speaking not to the exiled people of Judah, captive in Babylon at the time the story is set, but rather to other peoples: the coastlands, and peoples from far away. We most often think of Prophets in Hebrew Scripture primarily playing the role of calling the Hebrew people back to God. Indeed, calling God's chosen people back into covenant is a primary function of the Prophets. But Deutero-Isaiah's message is that the Babylonian exile is a pretty huge thing, and God wouldn't waste an opportunity like this to do something as "insignificant" as merely restore the house of David to the throne of Kingdom of Judah and bring the survivors back home. Now to any ordinary listener, that would be a pretty spectacular accomplishment, but Isaiah says God has something even bigger in mind. Judah will no longer be "merely" a people with a special relationship to God. Now, God intends for his followers to be "a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth." No longer is it enough that God's people live in covenant with God. Now, the new task Isaiah prophesies is to be a light to show the way to God to the entire world. Live so that you tell the world "Come and see the Lord of Heaven and Earth!"

In the Gospel lesson, John the Baptist begins by announcing "Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world." He announced it to the crowds. The next day, John announced it to two of his own followers. They left John and followed Jesus. One of them, Andrew, went and found his brother Peter, and announced "We have found the Messiah!" Andrew brought his brother Peter to Jesus.

Isaiah, John, and Andrew all acted as a light to the world. They all illuminated the way to God, and invited others to come and see. In this Epiphany season, when so much of the lighting up of the way to God comes from miracles, whether a star, or a lot of good wine, or a shimmering mountaintop experience, today's lessons remind this isn't the entire story. A big part of the lighting up of the way to God comes from the actions of God's servants: Isaiah, Paul, John the Baptist, Andrew, us. It is our task also to invite others to "Come and see."

Evangelism can be pretty close to a dirty word among Episcopalians. I know I personally find it really challenging to be a salesman. I'm no good at asking people to buy something. I don't like being pushy; I don't want to impose on people; I don't want to assume that my way of seeing the world is better than what they've already got going for them.

The first thing we have to remember is that this isn't sales at all -- it's sharing. If we truly believe we've got something great and we care about others, we want them to have the opportunity to have it too. As today's Psalm tells us, " I have told the glad news of deliverance in the great congregation; see, I have not restrained my lips, as you know, O LORD." Andrew knew Peter would be excited to hear about the Messiah. My fiancée knew I'd be excited to find a church.

But evangelism isn't just asking the unchurched if they've heard about Jesus. Epiphany, and our role in it, isn't about telling people what to do, or even telling them about our great God. It's about showing them. "I will give you as a light to the nations," says the Lord, "that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth". "_Behold_, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world". "Come and _see_".

When we live God's presence in the world, Epiphany can be a shining forth of the Light of God that is within us. A sharing of what God empowers us to do, and can empower others to do also. A glimpse into the world to come through our life as if it is already arrived.

Isaiah wrote about salvation reaching the ends of the earth. John proclaimed the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Evangelism isn't about inviting people to change the name of the God they worship, so their prayers are now aimed at the "right" God. Making visible God's salvation in the world points to a reality most clearly illuminated by the cross.

John pointed to Jesus as the Lamb of God. That might be muted for us, as people who hear those words every week, but in calling Jesus the "Lamb of God," John points toward his death. The salvation of God comes in the triumph of the Cross: the empires of this world threw all the evil they had at Jesus. They mocked him and tortured him and killed him. Jesus stood before the evil of the world, and somehow, through amazing grace, he didn’t use his infinite power to drive it off.

He let evil do its worst, and it did not prevail.

The good news that our lives are called to illuminate is that evil can’t win. We are called to live the reality that we do not need to repay evil with evil, because evil cannot win. To witness to Jesus’ facing all the terrible suffering that the mightiest empire in the world could throw at him, and not resisting it precisely because the worst they had to give was incapable of destroying him. The man who said “Love your enemies. Do good to those who persecute you. Bless those who curse you.” didn’t need to add a clause “unless they’re about to kill you; then, smite them with the hosts of heaven.”

Isaiah bore witness to the same truth that loving service needn't fear the mightiest powers on earth. He wrote "Thus says the LORD, the Redeemer of Israel and his Holy One, to one deeply despised, abhorred by the nations, the slave of rulers, "Kings shall see and stand up, princes, and they shall prostrate themselves, because of the LORD, who is faithful, the Holy One of Israel, who has chosen you."

The triumph of the cross is that Love is greater than all the forces of coercion and fear. Evangelism – spreading the Good News, revealing God's salvation – is living our lives to reveal the incredible gift we have that, when we believe in it, empowers us to love and serve without fear. We can do good without fear because Jesus showed that the worst that can happen to us cannot stick. It enables us to live as if the Reign of God were already fully present. And when we live in the Reign of God, we are light to the world, so others can come and see the Reign of God also. Amen.