Good morning. Merry Christmas! Happy New Year!
It is always a great honor and privilege to be invited to greet you from this pulpit. Jen and I have been a part of this community at Marsh Chapel for more than five years now, and I am continually delighted and awed by the work and ministry of this place. I am truly grateful to Dean Hill for the opportunity to be with you this morning and for seeing fit to continue both Jen and I on the staff these past several years.
Part of the attraction for me to Marsh Chapel over these years has been its truly ecumenical approach to chaplaincy and religious life. Of course we are rooted in the Methodist tradition which gave birth to the university, and both Jen and I, like the dean, are United Methodist clergy, but the ministry staff represents a broad spectrum of denominations and communities: American Baptist, Community of Christ, Episcopal, Lindisfarne, Lutheran, Roman Catholic, Southern Baptist, United Church of Christ, Unitarian Universalist. We each come from different religious communities but we are united in our purpose of journeying with students as they explore faith, grow in knowledge, and commit to service in the greater community. Certainly we don’t always agree on the finer details of theology and doctrine (that’s why we have both wine and grape juice at Communion today and each week it is celebrated here in the nave), but the spirit of ecumenical cooperation for a greater good pervades the work of this place.
This intentional ecumenism is made manifest in a variety of ways. This morning, the wine and grape juice are perhaps the most tangible of examples, but every week you will notice that the bulletin welcomes you to an “interdenominational service of worship.” The liturgy itself is a blend of traditions. For example, it is not a United Methodist service, nor is it an Episcopal service, but you will find elements of both traditions in the rhythms of the service. Few other places would you hear the Agnus Dei along side a United Methodist setting of the Great Thanksgiving for Communion. Marsh Chapel is both a religious community and a teaching community. It lifts up the best things that our various traditions have to offer, both in liturgy and music, and offers them in regular service to the university community. Hospitality to all, regardless of faith-tradition, sexual orientation, economic status, physical ability, or political view becomes both an important expression of the ecumenical cooperation of the chapel and a constant reminder of how we are to work together in ministry in support of students (and all people) on life’s journey.
Hospitality comes in many forms. For many people, a regular rhythm of worship, including a lesson from the Hebrew Bible and/or a New Testament epistle, a Psalm, and a Gospel lesson makes the liturgy accessible – folks know what to expect from week to week. Well, I might have turned that regular rhythm on its ear this just a bit this morning, but I think I had a good reason to do so. I noticed more than one puzzled face in the nave this morning as we were reading the lessons. Sirach? Wisdom of Solomon? Where is the Psalm? Isn’t today Epiphany? Where is the wise men narrative?
For many years, Marsh Chapel has followed the Revised Common Lectionary. It is the standard set of Bible readings used by a vast majority of mainline Protestants here in North America, the UK, and Australia. In the 1980s, representatives from a variety of liturgically-minded denominations gathered to formulate a lectionary, a cycle of readings, based on the three-year lectionary developed by the Second Vatican Council for the Roman Catholic Church. That “Common Lectionary” was revised in 1993, and has since been adopted for use by more than 30 denominations. While its use in local contexts is optional in many of these denominations, as it is in my own United Methodist Church, it is one way in which a local religious community may be united with others around the world each week, reading the same scriptures and reflecting on similar themes. At Marsh Chapel its use is again an expression of our ecumenical spirit.
The RCL recognizes today as the Second Sunday after Christmas, a liturgical Sunday, which only exists in the calendar year when Christmas falls on particular days of the week. December 25, 2013, happened to be a Wednesday, so we are in luck in 2014. Last year we had no second Sunday after Christmas! Unique liturgical Sundays which do not always occur in a particular year, like today’s Second Sunday after Christmas, play host to a variety of more obscure, sometimes Apocryphal or deuterocanonical, readings. Often, these readings never enter the Sunday morning liturgy, for one of several reasons. Some churches, especially Protestant communities in which Luther’s canon is exclusively used in worship simply elect never to use the Apocryphal and deuterocanonical texts which are always listed as “alternate” or supplemental readings. Or, as is more often the case, local communities will celebrate holidays which generally fall on a weekday on the nearest Sunday, effectively eliminating liturgical days like today. Most United Methodist Churches designate the first Sunday in January as Epiphany Sunday because there are no regular weekday services.
And Epiphany is most certainly important. It heralds the kingship of Christ and recognizes God’s manifestation among us as a human being. On Epiphany, we hear from the Gospel of Matthew of wise men coming from the east asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?” They had come to pay him homage and sought Herod’s guidance in finding the child. Eventually, they found Jesus with Mary and they knelt down and paid him homage, opened their treasure chests and offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. When I was a child I always liked playing the role of one of the kings in the Christmas play, not really because I got to wear a funny outfit and a really cool crown but because those playing the role of the kings often got to reprise the role for a brief reenactment of the visit of the magi on Epiphany Sunday two weeks after Christmas. As eager as I was for the annual reenactment, I must confess that I never really understood the importance of the wise men’s visit, and I also wondered why there were no wise women.
Not until seminary did I realize that for centuries, the church recognized those travelers from the East as the first to recognize Jesus’s power and authority on Earth, and the role I had played several times as a child was one of remembering this first recognition by people of God’s presence with us on Earth in human flesh. I didn’t see that in the annual retelling of the Christmas story, and I wonder how many others have missed this too. Maybe we are too focused on whether the 6-year old draped in purple sheets is going to trip on his merry journey to visit the baby Jesus, or maybe the theological consequences of a patriarchal authority structure assumed in the words of the Matthew narrative overshadow the specialness of the recognition of Christ as God with us.
Recognizing this theological problem, the editors of Women’s Uncommon Prayers, have imagined an alternative narrative for the magi story entitled “Three Wise Women”:
“If there had been three wise women, would the Epiphany story have been different? You bet it would! They would have asked for directions, arrived early, delivered the baby, cleaned the table, cooked the dinner, and brought practical gifts. God bless wise women!”
Today’s Scripture lessons from the Wisdom tradition provide an alternate vision and language for God made flesh. Our Gospel lesson recognizes the incarnation of God among us and the power vested in Christ. In this first chapter of John, Christ is named as Word, Light, the one through whom all things came into being, full of grace and truth. John concretizes the abstract in the form of Jesus, God incarnate, Word made flesh. There is a certain fondness for John’s gospel at the Chapel; its poetry enchants us; its mystery envelops us. It echoes the beauty of the wisdom literature of the Hebrew Scriptures and the multitude of ways in which God’s Word is encountered. But discussions of God’s Word and Wisdom are not limited to the wisdom literature.
Throughout the Hebrew Scripture, God’s Word is God’s creative, immanent, acting force in the world. In the first chapter of Genesis, God speaks creation into being. “God said, ‘Let there be light.’ And there was light.” “God said, ‘Let the earth bring forth living creatures of every kind: cattle and creeping things and wild animals of the earth of every kind.’ And it was so.” The Psalms praise God’s creative Word: “By the word of the Lord the heavens were made, and all their host by the breath of his mouth” (Psalm 33:6). Isaiah writes of God’s Word, “For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it” (Isaiah 55:10-11).
The Hebrew canon also observes God’s Word as wisdom, especially contained in the sapiential books of Job, the Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, Wisdom of Solomon, and Sirach. The wisdom tradition found in these texts teaches about God and virtue. God’s Word, or wisdom, is often found in the abstract in these texts. In the Song of Songs, we encounter God as lover of our souls, in the discourse of a prince and his bride. In Proverbs, we encounter maxims and admonitions interspersed with metaphor, truth conveyed in the abstract.
The reading appointed for today from Sirach is no different. Wisdom itself is personified as a woman dwelling among the Hebrew people and ministering to them, an acknowledgement that God’s Word works through and among the people. The reading from the Wisdom of Solomon again extols the deeds of God’s Wisdom, personified as woman, working through the Hebrew people over time.
In John’s gospel we have God’s Word, God’s presence, in each of these many encounters of God retold throughout Scripture bound into the being of Christ: from creation to the crossing of the Red Sea, from a lover’s description of hair like a flock of goats and cheeks like halves of a pomegranate to the proverb that “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.”
Wisdom, God’s Wisdom, God’s creating Word is beautiful beyond description. It works outside patriarchal structures, pervades relationships, inspires literature, and is in relationship to us through Jesus Christ. In John’s Gospel, we encounter Christ as the incarnate Word, the Word of Wisdom.
We may be more familiar with the theological metaphor that Jesus is Word, but the theological metaphor that God is Wisdom, Sophia, wise-woman is just as scriptural and deeply true.
Without incorporating the knowledge of God’s Word and Wisdom found throughout scripture, but especially in the wisdom literature of today’s lectionary reading, Epiphany only announces a king with great power, not also God as patient teacher, passionate friend, and eternal companion. The lectionary brings to the fore the fullness of Scripture. This Second Sunday after Christmas is meant to prepare us to hear the story of the magi. We encounter God’s Word as divine Wisdom. She dwells among us, befriends us, inspires us. That same Word and Wisdom is the Divine born into the world on Christmas day. It is the same Word the magi pay homage to, and it is the same Word we know in relationship with Jesus Christ. It is the same Word wise women such as Renita Weems, Mary Daley, Emilie Towns, Elizabeth Johnson, Sallie McFague, Katie Cannon, Dolores Williams, and Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza have been bringing to us for decades.
What does it mean that God’s Word, which has covered the earth like a mist, dwelt in the highest heavens, and been seated in the pillar of cloud, walks among us in Jesus of Nazareth? Yes, in Jesus is awe, power, and glory. But we also know that God’s patient wisdom, passionate fire, and gentle teaching are also who Jesus is. So often Epiphany and the story of the visit of the magi are used to herald Jesus’s kingship and future rule over all things. But perhaps, the magi were also there celebrating God’s Wisdom, God’s creating Word, encountered directly in an individual human being. That same Word which steadied Moses’s hands as the Red Sea parted was now a child, a child worthy of gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
We do not often think of God’s Word guiding the Israelites across the Red Sea, far less do we envision a Woman steadying Moses’s hands as the sea begins to part. But our texts today challenge us to encounter God’s Word in Christ in new ways. The visit of the wise men to Jesus was an acknowledgement that something truly extraordinary was happening in the world through Jesus.
Today is a communion Sunday for us here at Marsh. We celebrate the Lord’s Supper each first Sunday of the month. We remember Jesus dining with friends, giving thanks over bread and cup, and offering the bread and cup as tangible signs of participation in the new covenant. Just as something truly extraordinary happened in Christ’s incarnation, we recognize something extraordinary happens in the Eucharist. Christ is present in the fellowship of sharing the bread and the cup. God is incarnate in the sacrament.
Each time Communion is celebrated at Marsh Chapel anyone who seeks to be in closer relationship with Christ is invited to receive the sacrament, to encounter Christ. Yes, the sacraments are just as mysterious as the best of Hebrew wisdom literature, but just as the abstraction of the literature points to something very real and true, so do the sacraments convey a very real encounter with God. Perhaps today you may not see the hand which steadied Moses over the Red Sea, but perhaps you may feel Christ’s passion to be in relationship with you, just as a lover longs for her mate. God is working in the Sacrament, in ways beyond our Words.
The question of just how and where God acts in Communion has become a significant issue in recent months, even being featured in the Wall Street Journal. This summer, I was invited to participate in a consultation convened by The United Methodist Church on the subject of online communion. While no one would limit God’s ability to work in any circumstance, it has been the historic position of the church that communion is an incarnational act occurring in a specific place and time where we invite God to be present with us as a gathered community. The chapel continues to affirm this position and gladly offers to extend the celebration of the sacrament into the homes of those who are unable to participate in the liturgy in the chapel nave this day through the presence of our staff (or our clergy partners) throughout the upcoming week. Should you be listening and desire to receive and cannot attend the chapel service, or your local church, please contact us at email@example.com or via the various other methods on our website, and we will be sure that the sacrament is made available to you.
Much of the Wisdom guiding the conversation regarding the sacrament and the eventual decision by our council of bishops to place a temporary moratorium on all online sacramental practice came from ecumenical partners outside The United Methodist Church. While the ecumenical movement often challenges us to see God and the church in new ways, ecumenical partners can also serve the role of the gentle teacher of Proverbs, admonishing us in our errors.
As we celebrate today the Wisdom of God incarnate in Christ and Christ incarnate in communion, I also give thanks for divine Wisdom which pervades the work of ecumenical cooperation.
I had the privilege of being present for the 10th Assembly of the World Council of Churches in Busan, Korea, two months ago. God’s Wisdom still pervades the lumbering bureaucratic giant, which is the WCC. No, the Council has not realized equal representation among women and men at the assembly. Neither has it realized a proportionate percentage of Christians from the global South on its Central Committee, but God’s Word is heard and experienced in daily Bible study as church leaders from across the globe gather to share reflections on Scripture from their own traditions. God’s Word is manifest in the gathering of 150 young scholars, clergy and laity, gathered to share Wisdom with one another about the intentional formation of the next generation of church leaders, attune to the increasing need for ecumenical cooperation in living the mission of the church “To find the lost, heal the broken, feed the hungry, release the prisoner, rebuild the nations, and bring peace among peoples.”
But ecumenical cooperation really happens at the local level, when we partner with those from other traditions to bring out the best in one another. This morning in Dubuque, Iowa, St. Luke’s Singers from the local United Methodist Church have been invited to reprise Bethlehem’s Child Cantata at First Congregational United Church of Christ. The Wisdom of invitation energizes both communities and fosters further opportunities for cooperation. In this new year, I challenge you to see the Word incarnate in Christ and to search out ways to affirm God’s divine Word moving in your midst. Volunteer in an ecumenical or interfaith homeless initiative, like the Huntington New York Interfaith Homeless Initiative, where churches and synagogues open their doors providing shelter and care for those without a roof in these bitterly cold months. Invite the church down the street to join you for your spring bazaar and make it a “real” neighborhood block party. Or journey with one of the several interns here at Marsh Chapel as they seek ways to build community across denominational lines which can divide us.
As we move from this season of Christmas into the new year, may you experience the Word incarnate in Christ, receive Christ in the sacrament today, and participate in the work of God’s Word around you today and everyday. Amen.
~Rev. Soren Hessler, Chapel A