Good morning, I want to especially extend my gratitude to Dean Robert Alan Hill for the opportunity to preach this morning, from such a historic and meaningful pulpit. I also want to send lots of love and thanks to all the Marsh Chapel staff for supporting me, encouraging me, and growing with me in my first year of working in marsh Chapel as the chaplain for International Students. And I also want to thank all of you, in the pews before me, and in the radio listenership, for journeying with me on my maiden voyage of preaching Marsh Chapel. While I have preached many times before, each pulpit brings something new, and I am happy to share these next few moments in relationship with you.
**Please pray with me:
Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on us. May the words of my mouth and the meditation of all of our hearts be compassionate and acceptable in your sight. Amen.
According to a Gallop poll, the top 3 New Years Resolutions in 2014 were as follows: 1. lose weight/get fit. (no surprise there) 2. get organized. 3. save more/spend less. While I have long since given up hope on holding fast to a new years resolution for a whole year-my resolutions in the past have not made it past the month, let alone the year; I find myself falling pray to these same notions each January as we begin a new year with new resolves and goals. Just this past week, you can ask my poor husband Carson, I felt the urge to move around every single piece of furniture in my apartment, to renew the space and to get more organized. As human beings, renewal is a crucial part of our existence, we are constantly trying to re-create ourselves, find new meaning, and develop new goals. When we are renewed, we are often revived, which hopefully will lead us to respond.
Epiphany: On the Christian Liturgical Calendar, we have entered into a time of Epiphany. As Rev. Soren Hessler noted last Sunday in his sermon, Epiphany occurred this past Monday, when we imagined and remembered the magi traveling far and wide to find a baby in a manger, and in a whirlwind moment of realization they are struck with the knowledge that this is no ordinary child-but the Christ, god among us. This is the Magi’s epiphany. In one of my favorite movies, the 1993 film, ‘Hook’, it retells a story of an adult peter pan returning to Neverland to save his children. A Character in this movie is a bumbling pirate, a first mate named Mr. Smee. Mr. Smee has a similar moment to these Magi when he realizes something crucial about the plot. He shouts to Captain Hook: “I’ve just had an apostrophe!” Hook responds, “I think you mean an epiphany, Mr. Smee.” Smee says “Lightning has just struck my brain.” Hook retorts, “Well, that must hurt.”
While comical, there is something honest in this statement. Sometimes this season of Epiphany strikes us suddenly that we scramble to figure out what to do. During Advent we have a clear narrative path that leads us to the manger; and during the upcoming season of Lent we have a clear narrative path that leads us to the cross; and we often overlook the importance of this transition period that is Epiphany. Epiphany is truly a gift. We are given a mere 7 Sundays, just shy of 2 months, to explore the early life and ministry of Jesus.
While studying at Princeton Theological Seminary, I had a Systematic Theology professor who told us one day as we were studying the early church creeds, that in the Nicene Creed- while it states so much about the make-up spiritually and physically of Christ and beautifully tells the tale of the birth, death, and resurrection of Christ, all we see of Jesus’ life in ministry in the Nicene Creed is a comma. A grammatical comma. As many of you are familiar, part of the creed states:
“For us and for our salvation
He came down from heaven:
by the power of the Holy Spirit
He became incarnate from the Virgin Mary,
and was made man (COMMA),
For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate;
He suffered death and was buried.
On the third day he rose again
In accordance with the Scriptures…. (etc etc).”
Epiphany is for us an expansion of that comma. A chance to renew our common faith by reflecting on Jesus’ servant ministry and finding ways to respond with compassionate hearts likewise.
Baptism Sunday: It is then no coincidence that the Revised Common lectionary pairs this first Sunday of Epiphany with Christ’s Baptism. In fact, on the wider Christian calendar this Sunday is more commonly known as “Christ’s Baptism Sunday.” We enter into a new season liturgically, just as Jesus enters into his new ministry. In the book of Matthew, this baptismal scene between Jesus and John is a marker of the beginning of Christ’s teaching, healing, loving ministry. Baptism has long been associated with renewal and Jesus seeks out John to be renewed by this ritual cleansing in the river Jordan.
But something strange happens as Jesus approaches John to be baptized; John initially refuses, recognizing that Jesus is the superior in ministry, and instead John requests to be baptized by Jesus instead. The situation is, in a word, awkward. I heard a sermon once from a great preacher titled “The problem of baptism” and he cited this moment as being awkward, messy, problematic. We still struggle with baptism in many ways today, 2,000 years later- even as the ritual has been practiced in various forms in the Christian church for years and years-we still approach the topic cautiously. With Jesus and John it was ‘who should baptize who’, but in our current context we often hear debates on ‘infant baptism verses adult baptism’, ‘anointment or no anointment’, ‘immersion, or a sprinkling’, and so on and so forth. The gist is: baptism has always been a bit messy. But there is real truth and beauty to this very statement. To be renewed through the waters of baptism does not mean that your life becomes perfect, pure, or you are set on a straightforward path of faithfulness. In the past, we have often associate the renewal of baptism with perfection-with becoming whole and having all the answers.
But the so called ‘problem’ with baptism is that when you come up from the water, whether a baby or adult, whether sprinkled or immersed-you are renewed into a beautiful mess. You begin a long and complicated journey of learning who God is, what it means to live faithfully, how to exist in community, how to grow into your Christian identity. Even after Jesus baptism he acquires some bumbling disciples who mess up a lot, and he enters into a complex life of ministry-which is sometimes difficult, problematic, and awkward. But it is still a renewal-and your renewal into this messy Christian life is complex but so worthwhile. This renewal is rewarding, and full of surprises, but that does not always mean that it will be easy, or perfect, or pure. Like Smee’s epiphany-renewal sometimes hurts.
A few years ago, as a newly ordained minister, I spent a portion of my year serving as a volunteer for the World Service Corps, a non profit organization that sends volunteers into foreign service to help people in need and learn about culture. I lived with a spear fisherman and his family in New Caledonia, a tiny tropical island between Tahiti and New Zealand. There, I learned to eat fish for breakfast lunch and dinner every day, I presided over my first communion table, and spent most of my time establishing an after school program for local under-privileged children that still continues today. The island as a whole spoke a variation of French and local Melanesian languages.
When I first arrived, I had very, very basic understanding of French and could do no more than order a ham sandwich, but even sometimes my pronunciation was so bad I sometimes got chicken. Thus, during my first few weeks of running this after school program we played a lot of ‘red light, green light’-because it only required my knowledge of 3 french words: lumiere rouge, and lumiere vert. We would open up our school program by playing red light green light with the children on a little strip of land, which was mixture of gravel and rough grass behind the facility. At one point, a little boy, no more than 4 years old ran so hard that he slipped and fell onto the gravel and scraped up his knee. He started to scream and cry and wail, and the other children were startled and backed away.
I scooped him up quickly and took him inside, I cleaned him up and got a Band-Aid for his knee, but he was still weeping so violently. I tried talking to him, “where does it hurt”, “are you ok?” “what do you need”, trying to figure out what else I could do to help him. But the language barrier was steep, and my pitiful French was getting us no where. His eyes full of tears, he just looked up at me and continued to wail. I gave up on the words, and moved towards him and just wrapped him up in my arms, kissed him on the head, on the cheeks, on his scraped knee and hugged him tight. Almost immediately, he stopped crying. I was bewildered. Astonished, I let go of him, and he smiled, looked up at me and said: “All new”. I think he meant all better, or good as new. But ‘All new” made sense to me too. What started out as an uncomfortable, stressful, awkward moment turned into a beautiful renewal. The beautiful mess of living a faithful life leads to these incredible epiphany moments of renewal.
Another important guide for us during this epiphany season is the prophet Isaiah. In today’s lesson Isaiah addresses the people of Israel and calls them forth to be revived. Often when we are seeking renewal, trying to change and become newer and better, we find revival-a new sense of sustainment, a new call or purpose. In Isaiah 42, Israel is facing an identity crisis. They have been exiled, tortured, abandoned, homeless, starved, and much worse. They are coming out of the hard times and slowly edging there way into the good times-but they aren’t sure who they are anymore; the people of Israel struggled to find a sense of purpose, a sense of call. Isaiah, in a prophetic song calls out to them to become servants of peace. They are given a new identity to bring forth light to the nations, to bring forth justice, and teaching without burning a wick or breaking a reed. Israel is a revived in a renewed identity to become examples of peace and justice in the world.
In the Matthew passage, as we all know, John does finally consent to baptize Jesus. Jesus affirms that it is righteous for John to baptize him. And as Jesus comes out of the River Jordan, renewed, the Spirit of God in the form of a dove descends and a voice from heaven states, ‘this is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased’. The people present, including John himself, feel revived in there faith. Much like the Israelites, they are given a new identity. They have a new purpose to become bearers of that good news of that peace and to follow Jesus and his ministry throughout their days.
Once Israel has been renewed and revived, once Jesus has come up from the baptismal waters renewed and revived, both respond in acts of humility, acts of service and acts of compassion. Jesus leaves the River Jordan and goes to begin a ministry of healing, teaching, and preaching. Israel following these prophetic songs from Isaiah, becomes a peaceful people sharing the joy of the Lord with all of those around them.
We have a lot of guideposts in our society when we look in the world that show us what it means to RESPOND. For me, one of those guide posts is Albert Schweitzer. Albert Schweitzer was a great theologian and peace activist in the 1930’s-1960’s. Schweitzer was constantly looking for new and active avenues for peace; he even worked closely with Albert Einstein to find ways to stop nuclear warfare. Albert Schweitzer received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1952 for his work. When he got off at the train station in Switzerland to receive his award, he was overwhelmingly met by a great crowd of people. Reporters swarmed him with cameras and questions. Noted officials, politicians, and admirers all stepped forward to shake his hand and speak with him. He stood on the platform smiling, and held up his finger and said “Please, excuse me, I only need one moment”. He walked over to the edge of the train station where an elderly woman was struggling with her two large suitcases. He picked them up for her and carried them across the platforms until she found her train and helped her stow them before returning to the crowd and apologizing for his delay. A reporter who was there wrote in his article, “that was the first time I ever really saw a sermon walking.” Albert Schweitzer, in that moment and through much of his life-chose to respond.
As we move through this season of Epiphany, and through the New Year beginning this month, my challenge to you is that you take your moments of renewal and of revival and respond to the world around you.
Israel seeks renewal and begs the prophet Isaiah for a song, in this prophet’s song Israel is revived and called to be a people of peace and justice. Israel responds by living out lives of compassion, conducting acts of peace, and offering justice to all. Jesus seeks renewal at the waters of river Jordan and in the arms of John the Baptist. In his baptism, he is revived into the servant teacher, minister, and prophet that we have come to know. Jesus leaves the Jordan ready to respond to the needs of the world around him. He heals the hurting, uplifts the broken, frees the captive, and loves the needy. We have a chance to make Christ’s life more than a comma this year-we can actively care for the hungry, support the broken, work for the justice and freedom of captives, share peace with those in conflict, and share love and compassion with every single person who comes into our life this year.
We have been renewed through our baptism, through reflecting on Jesus’ baptism today and by coming into the natural renewal of a New Year. We have been revived in living through this beautiful mess of Christian life and in walking alongside Jesus as he teaches, preaches, and blesses us through this season of Epiphany. Let us take these gifts of renewal and revival and respond to the world around us.
I was privileged just a couple weeks ago to participate in a Christmas eve noon service in this very chapel. We lit all of the advent candles, sang some of my favorite Christmas hymns, and celebrated the imminent coming of Christ’s birth with the Eucharist. In closing, Dean Hill read a poem titled ‘The Work of Christmas’ by Howard Thurman. The poem goes:
When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among siblings,
To make music in the heart.
My friends, the kings and the princes have gone home and the shepherds are back with there flock. But Christ has been baptized and is moving forward in love to offer ministry and healing to all. Israel has been called to be a servant people of peace and prophetic joy. The work of Christmas has begun for us. As we journey into this new year, and into this new season of Epiphany, let us also be called into our season of renewal with a sense to Respond.
Through Christ we are renewed, through our faithful life in loving community we are revived, and in the work of Christmas we can respond. This is our epiphany. Amen.
~The Rev. Brittany Longsdorf,
University Chaplain for International Students
Nicene Creed translation taken from the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer.
“Messing People Up”, sermon by Rev. Dr. Alison Boden, Princeton University. January 11th, 2009.
Commentary on Isaiah 49:1-7, by Rev. Dr. Amy Oden. Workingpreacher.org. January 5th, 2014.
Commentarys used for Research: New Interpreters Bible Series, World Commentary Bible Series, New Oxford Bible Commentary, Harper Collins Study Bible Notes, and Anchor Bible Dictionary.