Sunday, January 6, 2019

"I see you": Sermon for Epiphany of Our Lord 2019

Sermon for Sunday 6 January 2019
Epiphany of Our Lord

Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, Jerusalem

The Rev. Carrie N. Ballenger

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

20th century German theologian and priest Karl Rahner wrote this prayer to the mysterious and hidden God he longed to know more deeply:

O God,
“You must adapt Your word to my smallness, so that I can enter into this tiny dwelling of my finiteness—the only dwelling in which I can live—without destroying it. If you should speak such an “abbreviated” word, which would not say everything but only something simple which I could grasp, then I could breathe freely again. You must make your own some human word, for that is the only kind I can comprehend. Don’t tell me everything that You are; don’t tell me of Your Infinity—just say that You love me, just tell me of Your Goodness to me.”

Fr. Rahner’s prayer speaks to our human longing to know the unknowable; our shared desire to grasp that which remains always just out of reach. How can we ever comprehend the Creator of the universe? How can we ever fully know the Ground of all Being, or have any hold on the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end?
By contrast, Holy Scripture says God knows us intimately and completely. As it is written:

“O Lord, you have searched me and known me.
You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
   you discern my thoughts from far away.
You search out my path and my lying down,
   and are acquainted with all my ways.” (Psalm 139)

Of course, books, blogs, and podcasts abound for those who are seeking a closer relationship with God. Especially at the start of the New Year, you have probably been advertised many recommendations of how you, too, can achieve closeness and intimacy with God in 2019—if only you breathe more deeply, pray more effectively, seek God more diligently. To be fair, breathing, praying, and seeking are not terrible spiritual practices. But any time someone says in my presence,  “Have you found Jesus?” I always want to respond, “I didn’t know he was lost!”

Dear siblings in Christ, God is, in many ways, unknowable. Some of who the Creator is will always remain hidden from us, until that day when we join the saints at the heavenly banquet and finally see God face to face.

However: It’s Christmastime, and today is Epiphany. Today we celebrate that God who is greater, God who is first and last, God who is more than we can comprehend, did in fact come near to us—and is nearer now than when we first believed. 
(Romans 13:11, and “Amazing Grace”)

Theologian Elisabeth A. Johnson writes in her book “Quest for the Living God: Mapping Frontiers in the Theology of God”:

“At the heart of the Christian faith is the almost unbelievable idea that the infinitely incomprehensible holy mystery of God does not remain forever remote but draws near in radical proximity to the world.” (Johnson, “Quest for the Living God” p. 39)

Yes, Jesus is Emmanuel. Jesus is God with us. This is what we have been celebrating for the last twelve days (and will continue to celebrate in Jerusalem until January 19!) While it may seem that the God of the universe is hidden behind theological words and concepts such a creation, grace, resurrection, ascension, or salvation, Christmas and Epiphany are the time when we remember God loves us enough to transcend words and concepts, and to come radically near to us…as a baby.

Maybe this is why we love Christmas so much. Theologically speaking, Holy Week and Easter are far more important to our faith. After all, other religions also feature miraculous births as part of their origin stories. The Virgin Birth doesn’t so much set apart Christianity from other religions as place it among accepted mythologies of its day. The radical love shown on the cross, and the victory over death shown by the empty tomb, are far more scandalous, far more noteworthy.

And yet, Christmas and the Incarnation are critical to our faith, because finally here is something we can comprehend. Here is a situation we can understand. Here is a mother, and a father, and most importantly: a newborn baby.

There’s not much that is mysterious about a baby, after all.

Babies make themselves known. They cannot and will not be ignored! Have you ever tried to ignore a baby—say, on a transcontinental flight, when the baby is sitting just behind your head? Impossible.

Babies are in your face. They are loud, and they are adorable. They are messy, and they are perfect. They are vulnerable, and they are totally demanding of your attention.
Above all, when babies are present with you—they are fully present. They are WITH YOU…like it or not.

This kind of immediate, in-your-face presence is probably not what the Magi from the East were expecting to find when they arrived in Bethlehem. To be fair, we don’t know exactly what they expected, but it seems they expected a king, since their first stop was at Herod’s palace.

I imagine they expected a throne and a crown.
I imagine they expected an army and a kingdom to guard and protect.
I imagine they expected a king who was a bit…Aloof. Stand-offish. Other.

I’m sure they didn’t expect God manifest in a manger.
Or salvation manifest in a stable,
Or a baby, ruling the world through love and mercy rather than by power and might.

On this day which we call the Epiphany of Our Lord, we honor and celebrate the manifestation of our living God as a baby in a manger in Bethlehem. We honor the wise strangers who came to see him. We honor the star, which shown in the night and guided them to the light of god’s love. We honor God, who spoke to the magi in a dream—although they were Gentiles and foreigners and had no reason to listen—and warned them to return home by a different road.

And on this day of Epiphany, we remember that the baby in the manger is not the end of the story. 

God is manifest as Christ in the manger and as Christ on the roads of Galilee. 
God is manifest as Christ on the cross and the Risen Christ on the road to Emmaus. 

The Epiphany of Our Lord didn’t happen on just the one night when the Magi followed the star to where it stopped. The Epiphany of Our Lord, the manifestation of God’s love in the world, continues to this day. Every day is Epiphany…when our eyes and hearts are open to see Christ manifest in the Other.

Not long ago, I was walking through the Christian Quarter with my arms full of grocery bags, and I stopped to catch my breath in the chairs set, as always, in front of the “Humble Shop in the Name of Pope Francis.” Surprisingly, the chairs—which are usually occupied by not-so-humble smoking and pontificating men—were empty.
I sat with relief and dropped some bags, but the load was heavy enough that a few still hung from my fingertips and balanced on my lap.

Just then, a little girl of no more than seven came bouncing toward me down the street. She wore a plaid skirt and pigtails and held, in front of her face, a cone of pink cotton candy bigger than her head. School was out, sweets had been acquired, and she was HAPPY.

My first thought was “OH MY GOODNESS I NEED A PICTURE TO PUT ON SOCIAL MEDIA” and my second thought was “Ugh. My hands are full.”

I wasn’t even sure where my phone and its camera were hiding among the heaving jumble of grocery bags in my lap, so instead of taking a picture, I just smiled at the girl.

Her joyful bouncing propelled her to just past where I sat, when she abruptly stopped. She turned quickly on her heel to look at me.

With the pink cotton candy partly stuck to her face, and her mouth wide open, she stared at me with something like amusement. Or was it confusion and curiosity? I wondered what it was that caught her attention. Was it the clergy collar, or the silly number of grocery bags by my feet, or the fact that I was sitting where I wasn’t supposed to be?

In any case, it seemed appropriate to say “Marhaba!”
“Marhabteen!” she said back.
“Is that tasty?” I continued in Arabic.
“Oh yes! I just got it after school! It’s COTTON CANDY,” she replied.

Now she was smiling at me, as well as staring at my ridiculous grocery bags, almost as if she were thinking “I wish I could do something about this situation, but my hands are full right now.” 

(“I know the feeling!” I thought.)

A few more pleasantries (my Arabic can only take me so far, even with a 7-year old) and then with a little wave, she bounced away from me and down the street.

I stood up with the groceries re-positioned and set out toward home. I was smiling now, too, but still mourning the loss of the photo of this encounter. If only my hands hadn’t been full!

But then I thought—what if my hands had been empty? Would I have sat down to really see the street, and the people walking on it? Would I have talked to the girl with the cotton candy, or would she have become yet another piece of Jerusalem to consume—like the little plastic baby Jesuses and the postcards they sell at the “Humble Shop in the Name of Pope Francis”?

A local friend once said to me, “Everyone prays for the peace of Jerusalem, but what they really want is a piece of Jerusalem.” This speaks to a painful truth about Jerusalem, but I wonder if it also speaks to the truth of how we approach life in general.

All too often, the people in our day are just part of the scenery. Our lives are busy, our hands are full, and our encounters with others become just one more moment to manage, to capture, to post, to consume.

When we approach life like that, when we approach people like that, we can miss the daily Epiphanies in life. We can miss the manifestations of God’s love that come unexpectedly, in the most mundane places—like on our commute home. Or at the grocery store. Or on the streets of Jerusalem, or Chicago, or wherever you’re from.

Or even in a manger, in a cave, in  no-account town like Bethlehem.

And so on this Day of Epiphany, as we honor the wise travelers who came to see Jesus, I want to say to the girl with the face full of cotton candy and joy:

I see you.
I see Christ in you!
And thank you for seeing me, too.

Let us close with a new year prayer from African-American theologian Howard Thurman:

Grant that I may pass through the coming year with a faithful heart. There will be much to test me and make weak my strength before the year ends.
In my confusion I shall often say the word that is not true and do the thing of which I am ashamed. There will be errors in the mind and great inaccuracies of judgment.
In seeking the light,
I shall again and again find myself
walking in the darkness.
I shall mistake my light for Your light
and I shall drink from the responsibility of the choice I make...
Though my days be marked with failures, stumblings, fallings, let my spirit be free so that You may take it and redeem my moments in all the ways my needs reveal.
Give me the quiet assurance of Your Love and Presence. Grant that I may pass through the coming year with a faithful heart. Amen.”

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