Thursday, January 30, 2014

Preacher's Study - Presentation of the Lord, 2014

The Preacher’s Study

Thoughts on next Sunday’s sermon,
The Presentation of our Lord in the Temple
(also known as Hypapante, or Candlemas),
February 2

Juan Oliver

The great feasts of the Church are like lighthouses, sending their radiance both ahead of them and behind. Easter, for example, illumines all of Lent, and reaches to its last Sunday, Pentecost. Christmas too, warms Advent with expectation, and relishes its Good News for well over a month, a period ending this coming Sunday, February 2.  So rather than approach Candlemass  as an individual feast, unrelated to anything, I suggest we look at it in the light of Christmas. 
For Jesus is "A light to enlighten the Gentiles, and the Glory of your people Israel," as Simeon proclaims.   

Luke´s story combines two different Jewish observances in one action: the Purification of Mary and the Presentation of Jesus.  Observing the law, Mary comes to be restored after giving birth, which according to the Torah, rendered her ritually unable to approach the Temple (see Nu 12).   She and Joseph are the embodiment of the majority of Jews, who, illiterate and too poor to offer any sacrifice, lived perennially in a state of ritual defilement or "sin."

She also comes to present Jesus, offering him to God as her first born male (see Ex 13), who unblemished, is fit for priesthood, thereby doing his pydion ha-ben,  just as Hanna had  presented Samuel (see 1 Sa 1:22-28).

They offer two turtledoves – the offering prescribed for the poor who cannot afford a lamb: one dove for a burnt sacrifice, the other for a sin offering, removing the defilement. The couple also probably paid five shekels, but Luke leaves this detail out.

Very kosher.  Upon this very Jewish scene, Luke weaves his very own Epiphany (remember, the visit of the Magi is a Matthean pericope).  For Simeon recognizes Jesus as the "..light to enlighten the gentiles, and the Glory (Shekinah, or the glorious presence of God) of your people Israel."   This light, born in darkest night, has begun to shine and spread everywhere, both home (Israel) and abroad (Gentiles).  It is, as Luke has Zachariah sing about John the Baptist, (Lk 1: 78-79)  "...a light to shine on those in darkness and the shadow of death; to lead our feet into the way of peace."

The Feast of the Presentation and Purification dates from Jerusalem in the late fourth century (381-4 AD).  It was initially celebrated on February 14 --40 days after the January 6 celebration of the Nativity.  In Orthodoxy it bears the name of Hypapante, or the Feast of the Meeting (ie., Simeon and Anna meet Christ). A procession with candles was added to the beginning of the Eucharist in the early 700´s, hence its other name, Candlemass.  It was natural that, within a few years, the candles would be blessed.  By then the feast from the East was meeting local pagan observances of Imbolc in Northern Europe. 

Observed at the midpoint between the Winter solstice and the Spring equinox (ie., February 1 or 2), Imbolc was a feast of potentialities: it marked the first milking of ewes and the nascent Spring, along with the lengthening of days and the gradual warming of the earth. It was also an ocassion for spring cleaning – specially of the hearths – and, as any gardener knows, cleaning up dead growth before the new shoots emerge.  Already, today, small shoots are venturing out of the ground and buds are starting to swell, even though here in New Mexico night temperatures can fall to the single digits!

Luke´s story, however, is not all wine and roses.  It contains a dire warning: this light comes for "the rise and fall of many in Israel," for as Luke had promised in the Magnificat, the poor will rise to healing and shalom while the rich shall be sent away empty – specially the Pharisees and teachers of the law who will be judged by the cross.

The Light is a troublemaker. It will "reveal the inner thoughts of many a heart," exposing their deepest secrets;  it blazes into the darkest corners, uncovering what is hidden and unearthing what is buried.   It is indeed a two-edged sword, God´s Word made human.  It will demand that we walk with integrity (Ps. 84:11 – Indeed, the whole of Ps 84 is a perfect fit for this pericope).

This light, according to the first reading, is like a refiner's fire or a fuller's soap, purifying gold or silver and cleansing freshly woven wool until Israel can present an offering to the Lord in righteousness as in the days of yore.  The implication is, of course, that Israel was not able to offer anything in righteousness (justice). In Jesus’ time the Temple priesthood had abandoned their integrity and defiled God´s house by selling themselves out to the invading Roman principalities and powers.  But Christ comes to purify the Temple and to shine integrity upon God´s people and their worship in sincerity and truth.

So Luke stresses that we cannot enjoy the light and warmth of Christ without also welcoming the purification that it brings, a cleansing of the inner clutter of insecutity, lack of focus, deceitfulness, culling favor, and so on. This inner "Imbolc" must be undertaken (and the coming Lent will give us the opportunity) in order for the Light to do its work in us and our communities.

Luke also suggests that Simeon and Anna have a specific skill given by the Spirit: to be able to see the light of the world in the poor and insignificant, already emerging like tiny green shoots –the first fruits of God´s Reign of justice and peace.  

So, dear preacher, perhaps you can point to and name the local green shoots of justice and peace already emerging in your neighborhood, and the clean-up that they demand from us.  

Oh, yes, and play with candles too!

Juan Oliver is a member of the International Anglican Liturgical Consultation, Societas Liturgica, and The Council of The Associated Parishes for Liturgy and Mission, as whose president he served from 1997 to 2001.  He´s retired in Santa Fe, NM.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Preacher's Study - Year A, Baptism of the Lord, 2014

The Preacher’s Study

First thoughts on next Sunday’s sermon,
The Baptism of the Lord (1st Sunday after Epiphany)

John W. B. Hill

The Baptism of the Lord was, until the 20th century, the forgotten treasure — dropped from the western church’s calendar and lost from our consciousness. Epiphany originally celebrated both Jesus’ nativity and his baptism; it is the most ancient festival of the Messiah’s coming into the world. When December 25 took over the celebration of the nativity, the focus of Epiphany became his baptism alone — until sentimentality trumped theology, and the Jordan River was replaced by astrologers! The baptism of Jesus disappeared from our liturgical tradition, notwithstanding the importance it has in all four versions of the Gospel: the manifestation of God’s redemptive presence in our flesh. Now we must work to restore the consciousness we lost.

If the voice from heaven echoes both Psalm 2 (“You are my son...”) and Isaiah 42 (“ chosen, in whom my soul delights”), then the baptism of Jesus was a sign of glorious promise for the entire world. Here, standing in the water of the Jordan River, is Israel’s ‘anointed one’ upon whom God has “put his spirit,” who “will not grow faint...until he has established justice in the earth.” He is “ a covenant to the people, a light to the nations.”(Isaiah 42: 1, 4, 6)

What was the secret of Jesus’ astonishing freedom from the allurements of power, from the self-serving expectations of his friends? This story merely hints at something which becomes a central theme in the fourth Gospel: Jesus seeks to do only the will of the One who sent him, knowing that “the Father has given all judgment to the Son.”(John 5: 22) His supreme concern is to know the Father’s will; his supreme delight is knowing the Father is pleased with him. This is the sure compass of his life; because he covets no other approval, he knows the perfect freedom of serving God alone. Our world has never had a more incorruptible model or a more brilliant moment of opportunity.

Yet, here at the Jordan, what we hear about is not just the dawning hope of God’s reign of justice, peace and reconciliation, but the mounting peril of human catastrophe. The forerunner summons people to repentance, to escape “the wrath that is coming!” (Matthew 3:7) Jesus not only agrees with John; he joins the crowds and descends into the waters of judgment. Others may have entered those waters in fear, repenting of their sins; Jesus enters the water in compassion for a world in crisis, repenting for the sins of us all.

But in the end, we balked at the prospect of this ‘kingdom’ he was launching, and unleashed the crisis upon Jesus himself. Gordon Lathrop, writing about Jesus’ baptism, says, “God’s Son stands with a needy world, longing for God and God’s reign to replace horror, oppression, and death. Then it is no wonder that the death of Jesus is also called his ‘baptism,’ where the same identification with need occurs, but where that reign paradoxically begins to arrive.”[i]

For centuries, we have practiced baptism as a rite of social conformity. This Sunday’s celebration invites us to rethink the meaning of our baptism in the light of Jesus’ baptism. Not only have we have been baptized into his mission, to proclaim the hope of God’s reign of justice, peace and reconciliation; we have been baptized into his death to become, as his risen body, the living sign of that justice, peace and reconciliation for the world.

John W. B. Hill is an Anglican presbyter in Toronto, Canada, author of one of the first Anglican sources for catechumenal practice, council member of APLM, and chair of Liturgy Canada

“Baptism of the Christ” by Daniel Bonnell (St. George’s Cathedral, Jerusalem) 

[i] Gordon  Lathrop, The Four Gospels on Sunday: the New Testament and the reform of Christian worship (Minneapolis, Fortress Press, 2012) 171.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Preacher's Study - Epiphany, 2014

The Preacher’s Study

First thoughts about next Sunday’s sermon,
The Epiphany of the Lord

Juan Oliver

To the exemplary memory of Otis Charles, a bishop uncomfortable with lies.

In the prologue of John, proclaimed this Christmas season (and possibly this Sunday), we heard how the Word of God (i.e. the Torah!) has become flesh and blood. So for Christians, at least, "spirituality" must be embodied, taking place in the messy theater of history.

This year, the lectionary has us proclaiming the Flight into Egypt first, and then, on Epiphany (or the Sunday immediately before), the story of the Three Magi.  The two pericopes, however, are best understood in light of each other.

Somewhere along Christian history, the magi in the first Gospel became Kings, even though Matthew says nothing about that.  He calls them magi in Greek, that is, "wise men" or "astrologers" who "saw his star in the East." They came looking for a King just born – a King of the Jews.

We do not usually think of our political leaders as having their own star, but in antiquity this notion was commonplace. In Colossians, for example, the "principalities and powers" that Christ dragged behind him in his triumphal procession were both the political powers that be and the cosmic forces that guided and protected them.

The newborn King of the Jews also has his own star.  This new King is extremely frightening to King Herod, who was a yes-man for the Roman invaders, and must have lived in mortal fear that the Jewish rebels might crown their own King and trigger a civil war – not a pretty thing in the eyes of Rome, his master and employer.

But a baby King? Come oooon! From a Kingdom belonging specially to children, the poor, the nobodies?  How exactly would that be a threat to the powers that be? 

Perhaps Herod knew, in his heart of hearts, that his power was illegitimate? Or did he unconsciously know that he was betraying his own people? Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown, of course. But even more uneasily if that crown is heavy with guilt. And there is no more dangerous power than power suffused with guilt.

People in the grips of guilt-ridden power live in extreme fear and shame. Oh, they may convince themselves that their secrets are necessary, or that they have a right to their power, or that it is God's will that they rule. Washington and Ottawa have, over the years, provided many examples. We only find out about them after their house of cards comes crashing down from its own weight of lies. These "kings" know this well, and so live in mortal fear of The Day.

Matthew paints Herod as a villain, and the historical record of his reign bears that out.  Yet in Matthew's narrative, no less than in Roman history, Herod is just a pawn.  He is there so the Holy Family has to go into exile so that God can call them back out of Egypt and take them home, like the people of Israel.  Baby Jesus is the embodiment of an oppressed people, literally rescued by God from exile and brought safely home. Undocumented immigrants have no problem making sense of this story.

Yet it is difficult to bring this pericope to our own day. For it to make sense, the hearer must belong to the dispossessed – the nobodies –undocumented persons, the sick, the abandoned, the poor.  For those of us who are comfortable, the temptation is strong to allegorize the story into a description of interior subjective states, forgetting its real flesh and blood implications, both to the Herods of this world and to those they sell out and oppress.

But we should resist.  Matthew knew nothing of interior "spiritual" subjective states separated from sociopolitical events. For him the restoration of Israel – united with all the nations – by Christ was a political and socioeconomic event, not a disembodied "spiritual" happening.

The reading from Jeremiah assigned for the 2nd Sunday after Christmas Day drives this home.  The prophet does not use phrases as metaphors of spiritual states. He means them literally. There WILL be enough grain, wine and oil, and food and dancing and even fat for priests.  The redemption of God's people will not be the payment of a bill to an accountant father, but their liberation from oppression and injustice by those whose power is illegitimate.

The Gospel turn on this of course is that in Jesus' case he is not just "the Jewish people," but a kid!  (In Luke this kid actually teaches theologians at the Temple!) Matthew is telling us that the revolutionary power of the Good News to bring down the powerful from their thrones and lift up the poor is a different kind of power from the usual.  It is the power of children and other people who were considered nobodies in Jesus’ time.  For as Nelson Mandela learned and taught, we cannot fight the principalities and powers of this world that corrupt and kill God's creatures with their own methods.  A different method is in order: the power of powerlessness – public, loud, truth-telling powerlessness. Powerlessness so sure of the righteousness of its cries for justice, that it can turn the cheek, suffer persecution, bear extended imprisonment and death itself, so strong is its determination to hope and work for a better world.

And a better Church.

Juan Oliver is a member of the International Anglican Liturgical Consultation, Societas Liturgica, and The Council of The Associated Parishes for Liturgy and Mission, as whose president he served from 1997 to 2001.  He´s retired in Santa Fe, NM.

"The Magi" and "Flight into Egypt" by He Qi.