Sunday, January 8, 2012

(Epiphany) A mystery in plain sight

Epiphany: "Lift up your eyes and look around"
Ephesians 3:1-12; Matthew 2:1-12; Isaiah 60:1-6

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We are observing it today in worship,
but Friday was Epiphany, the end of the 12-Day Christmas season.
Overall, it was a good Christmas,
here at Park View, and for me personally.
Wonderful worship experiences.
Amazing music that carried us along.
Beautiful art to inspire us.
Rich time with family.
Thoughtful sharing of gifts.
And just the right amount—a modest amount—
of nostalgia and sentimentality.


It was a good time.
And a good distraction from all the political mudslinging
and other foolishness going on this time of year.


I get a little weary—well, more than a little weary—
with the state of our public discourse,
with the way of talking to each other,
that our culture has come to accept as normal.
You have to act like you just know, without a shred of doubt,
that what you believe is the one right way to believe,
and then you must do everything you can 
to distance yourself from your opponent,
to loudly exaggerate, stereotype, pigeonhole,
discredit, and yes, despise those who disagree with you,
and then you play the fear card . . .
suggesting that the other is out to destroy our way of life,
and then for good measure, you thrown in some innuendo
that your opponent’s viewpoint is not very far removed
from that of Hitler or Nazi Germany.
No middle ground is allowed.
You’re either entirely right or entirely wrong,
and thus, entirely good or entirely evil.
Our culture, and our politics, both left and right,
are built, it seems, on some misguided devotion to 
absolute certainty,
and a outright rejection of mystery.


Just see how fast someone falls off the national political stage,
and into oblivion,
if they suggest they don’t really know about something,
or imply there might be more than one legitimate way 
to look at a some hot issue,
or try to nuance their position in any way.
They get shouted down, or they get ignored.


We in the church are sometimes guilty of the same.
We, too, are sometimes afraid to embrace mystery,
when it comes to matters of faith.
We need to at least act like we’re sure, even if we have to fake it.
Or when we do speak of mystery,
we try to move quickly to solving the mystery,
to finding the one right answer.


The season of Epiphany, at first glance,
actually seems to support the notion
that the mystery is over . . . and now we know.


The word “epiphany” means, of course, a “revelation.”
An epiphany is when the lights come on!
It’s when the hidden becomes revealed.


Our scriptures today speak confidently of what has been revealed.
The Gospel story from Matthew 2—the story of the wise men—
celebrates that the light of God has come to the Gentiles.
The Old Testament reading from Isaiah 60
proclaims with joy
that our light has come,
and the glory of the Lord has risen upon us.
The epistle reading, from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians,
sounds utterly confident that God’s activity, once a mystery,
has been made known in Christ, made known to all,
including Gentiles.
In former days, this secret—
that God includes Gentiles in his family—
was an unknown mystery,
but now, everyone sees what used to be hidden.
The Gospel of Christ,
is a mystery in plain sight.


So in light of these texts, 
in light of this biblical confidence and optimism about revelation
why—on Epiphany of all days—should I talk about mystery?
Well, in light of our human experience,
how can I not talk about mystery?


In light of the year we have come through—
with yet more disasters, war, famine,
religious hatred, and violence of all kinds—
how can we not just say that there are things we don’t know?


Furthermore, the human experience of the writers of scripture,
was not that different from our own human experience.
They too had struggles of faith.
Yes, the people who wrote our Holy Book did not always know,
and were honest about it.
They had questions that were too difficult for them.


The twelve disciples,
even as they walked in the very presence of the divine Son of God,
stumbled and bumbled their way along
on this strange and complicated and ever-changing
journey of following Jesus.
And their fears and missteps and doubts 
are all recorded for us in the pages of holy scripture.


The great apostle Paul,
who personified optimism and bravado and certainty,
had this to say, and I quote,
from 1 Corinthians 2:3—
“I came to you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling.”
and from Ephesians 6:19—
“Pray also for me, [as I speak] the mystery of the gospel.”
and from 1 Timothy 3:16—
“Without any doubt, the mystery of our religion is great.”


So I think I’m on solid ground when I say,
that even in light of Epiphany’s divine revelation to the nations,
even with the ongoing enlightening work of the Holy Spirit,
we are left with a gospel characterized by mystery.


The question for all of us, is what do we do with this mystery?
What is our relationship with the part of the gospel
that is mystery?
What should our posture be toward the unknowable?
Do we push it away, or walk toward it?
Do we anxiously strive to uncover everything unknown? 
Or do we welcome the mystery and live with it?


This is Epiphany. The Day of Revelation.
But sometimes, it seems, the only thing an epiphany reveals,
is a deeper level of mystery.
_____________________


I find Paul’s words, in today’s reading from Ephesians 3, compelling.
Paul described himself as a servant of this mysterious gospel, v. 7.
A servant of the gospel. A servant of the mystery that is Christ.
We often talk about being a servant of God, a servant of Jesus,
even a servant to one another.
But Paul says he’s a servant of the gospel of Christ.


What does he mean by that?
I think we often, mistakenly, think of the gospel as a thing.
As some commodity we have in our hand.
Something we reproduce and hand out to others.
A belief and behavior system,
that once we have it mastered,
we package and distribute it.
Customized for our particular market, of course,
but nonetheless, it’s a commodity we possess,
and which we have the power to shape, to mold,
to make available, or to withhold.


But no, the Gospel is not ours to master or manage.
It was, and still is, the Gospel of God.
Paul, in this letter to the Ephesians,
understands that the gospel is not something we have, or hold onto,
or pass out like candy.
It’s something we serve.
The gospel has its own life . . . in God through Christ.
The gospel exists completely outside of our small attempts
to reproduce, package, and market it.
And the gospel has its own authority.
We let the Gospel speak to us, and to our world.
We let it set the agenda.
We bow to it.
We serve its best interests.


And, as something out of our control, it still has a mystery about it.
Not a mystery far away beyond our knowing.
Actually, according to Paul, it’s a mystery that is in plain sight.
Paul is confident the mystery is made known by the Spirit.
But we never master it. It masters us.
We are called to serve the mystery of the Gospel,
to devote ourselves to it,
to order our lives around it.


Just because the gospel of Christ is a mystery,
does not mean it’s any less worthwhile,
does not mean we shouldn’t dedicate our lives to it,
does not mean we shouldn’t be its servant.


To be a servant of the mystery simply means this:
we welcome the unanswered and dangling questions of our faith,
but we don’t falter in our commitment
to keep following the way of this mysterious gospel.
Not knowing everything about it,
is no excuse for not committing our lives to it.
In fact, if we did know everything there was to know about it,
if we could master it,
we would not be in a good position to bow, 
or submit to it, would we?


I think many Christians make one of two mistakes
in facing the mysteries of faith.


Either they deny the mystery,
and try to shore up their faltering faith,
by acting all the more certain and dogmatic,
and just hoping all the dilemmas will disappear.


Or, they get cynical,
and assume if they can’t wrap their mind around it,
and get all the loose ends tied up,
then it must not be worth believing in.


I choose, rather, to be a servant of the mystery.
To give a place of honor to the mystery of the Gospel.
To say, no, I don’t know everything it means to follow Jesus in life.
It’s a start, but things don’t really become perfectly clear,
just by asking, “What would Jesus do?”
It’s at least as complicated for me, as it was for St. Peter,
who had Jesus right in front of him, in the flesh.
Nevertheless, I choose to take all that I know of myself,
and give it to all that I know of Christ and the Gospel of God.


I want to be a servant of the mystery,
and say, I don’t know all there is to know about the ways of God,
but nevertheless, I trust God.
_____________________


I don’t know any other way to cope, theologically,
with the many and deep kinds of suffering
right now being inflicted on God’s children all around the world.


In the just the last few days since New Years,
I’ve listened to reports on NPR about the alarming rise 
in vicious sexual attacks and murder of young women
in Somali refugee camps, 
and nothing is being done to address the crisis.
I’ve been hearing about the renewed mass slaughter of Christians 
and burning of churches in Nigeria,
and threats of retaliation by the Christians
against the radical Muslim groups claiming responsibility.
I’ve read of yet another bombing in Syria on Friday, killing over 26,
and reports of hundreds being tortured.
There has been famine and flood across the globe.


Where is God in the middle of all this?  Where is God?
I don’t answer the question glibly.
Because I don’t know, in any rational, provable way.
But my faith—mystery and all—does have an answer to give.
There is a place, a firm place, where we can stand,
where the mystery is in plain sight.
And from that place, I say, with conviction,
God is right there, in the Somali refugee camp,
weeping with the women.
God is on the doorsteps of the Nigerian churches
as the gunmen run inside.
God is sitting on the street next to the grieving families in Syria.
God is where the suffering is.
Wherever people are being abused, or going hungry, 
or dying for lack of shelter.
God is there.


Suffering is part of life, for all God’s children.
Even Jesus said, God sends rain on the just and on the unjust.
God does not reach down and manipulate the jet stream,
so that rain falls on those who need it most,
or so that hurricanes and typhoons destroy only the wicked.
God does not reach down and push on earth’s tectonic plates,
to cause earthquakes and tsunamis.
I just don’t believe God routinely interferes with the course of nature,
in order to make certain people suffer and other people prosper.
Nor does God prevent people from choosing evil,
and doing harm to other people and to creation.


If bad things happen,
it doesn’t mean God masterminded it,
and it has nothing to do with what God thinks of us.
When God’s children suffer, God suffers.
God feels deeply.
God is a God of deep compassion.
God knows our sufferings.
God does not walk away from us in our time of need.
God walks toward us.


By faith, that is my conviction about God.
Can I prove it? Of course not.
But by faith, I receive it, and hold it,
as a mystery in plain sight.
God loves . . . always.
God is with us . . . always.
And God is especially close to those who suffer.
_____________________


Our faith in a compassionate, suffering God
is something we call to mind every time we take communion.
And we will be doing that this morning,
as we typically do on Epiphany Sunday.


There is no better representation of a mystery in plain sight,
than the symbols on display this morning:
Symbols of the body of Jesus, broken for the sake of the world,
and the blood of Jesus, spilled for the salvation of all.


At the Lord’s table, when we eat and drink these symbols,
we identify with—mystery of mysteries—a God who suffers.
We remember the suffering and death of Jesus,
and, in fact, partake of it.
This morning, when we eat the bread and drink the cup,
may we also partake of the suffering of God’s children,
all around the world,
and here at home, among us.



_____________________



Let us pray . . . 
Lord, it is with great joy and thanksgiving
that we eat and drink at your table today.
You have been seeking us, 
drawing us toward you,
desiring to show yourself to us more fully.
And so we come, thankfully, 
to this table of mystery and revelation.
Bless us as we partake,
that we may be a blessing to others.
In the name of Christ who lives and rules,
and who walks beside us,  Amen.




—Phil Kniss, January 8, 2012


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