I see a theme in this mornings readings and it has to do with us and our tendency to look at everything through the lens of how we fit into the world and society around us. Sometimes that blinds us.
In our first reading from 2 Samuel this morning we find David unifying the tribes of Judah and all the tribes of Israel under his leadership as king. Saul has been killed and there has been a considerable amount of political intrigue and assassination in arriving at this time. The elders of the tribes of Israel came to David to tell him they wanted him as their king and at the ripe old age of 30 David became king of all of Israel.
We then skip over the conquest of Jerusalem and arrive at David’s triumphant entry into the city. David declares the name of the city to be the City of David. In these times, naming something declared ownership over it and I find it interesting that although David has relied on the Lord for every move he has made on the battlefield and his ministration over the tribes of Judah, he now claims Jerusalem in his name and not the name of the Lord. I see David becoming more interested in his stature beginning at this point as you might expect a king would do. After conquering the city, a house of cedar is built for David and he continues the conquest of the lands around him, with the Lord’s blessing and guidance. He has risen to a pinnacle of power.
It is said that 2 Samuel marks David’s success and struggles. The book is divided almost in half, at Chapter 11 between his successes and struggles. At Chapter 11 David’s lust for Bathsheba sends him down the torturous road of actions against the Lord. All of that is a story for another day. The importance I see in our reading this morning is that David puts a whole lot more of David into his own story at this point, foreshadowing his path into struggles.
Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians follows on the heels of the still young church in Corinth struggling with men Paul identifies as false teachers and an undermining of Paul’s authority to speak for God. Paul had gotten the church in Corinth established and had sent three letters to them one of which has been lost to history. His first letter in our bible is actually Paul’s second letter and is addressing questions that have risen among the faithful. Between what we know as 1 Corinthians and 2 Corinthians some voices Paul identified as false teachers rose up to say Paul was too strict, he had no real authority, his teachings were bogus and there were better, easier ways to God.
When we catch up with Paul in this morning’s reading at Chapter 12, he is in the precarious position of having to boast about himself in order to show his authority. Keep in mind he does not want to boast about himself as he believes he should only boast in the Lord. He said that in 1 Corinthians and earlier in this letter.
In Acts14:19-20, “Jews from Antioch and Iconium” attempt to stone Paul and leave him for dead but he regains consciousness and escapes the area. In our reading this morning Paul recounts the testimony of “a man in Christ” who had an encounter with heaven. Many theologians think it is evident Paul is talking about himself here. Some also believe that the event that precipitated this vision was Paul’s attempted stoning. He had a near death experience. The point I think is important this morning is that Paul did all he could to boast about himself, having had a heavenly experience, but not appear boastful and thus un-Christlike by speaking about himself in the third person.
Paul further demonstrates his humility in saying that he was given a thorn in his side. That thorn in his side has been interpreted in recent times as some sort of sickness or weakness. He prayed “three times” for the thorn to be removed but the answer he received was that there is strength in weakness. Don’t get too big for your britches Paul, you are stronger when your ego is small.
And how does this all connect with our Gospel this morning? I am glad you asked. Jesus goes to his hometown, Nazareth, and attempts to carry out his ministry there. It’s not working. Some come to him believing he can cure them and they are cured. Most do not believe and Jesus is dumbfound by their failure to believe. As a result no great works are accomplished. So what the heck can be happening here?
The people in the village can’t figure out how this carpenter got the authority to say the things he is saying. He’s a carpenter! He has lived here with us all of his life and now he comes to the synagogue and spouts all this stuff! Who the heck does he think he is? He’s just Mary’s son and we know all his brothers and sisters. Who the heck does he think he is?
Maybe the question really is “What makes him think he’s so much better than I am? I have lived in the same place he has and heard the same things he has. Where does he get off thinking he’s better than me?” There’s that darned ego we saw rising up in David and trying to be beat down by Paul. The obstacle to Jesus’ ministry in Nazareth is the inability of the villagers to put aside their egos and accept that maybe this guy they always knew might have something worthwhile to share. Jealousy? Maybe. Hurt pride? Yeah that fits. Perhaps for some, they would have had to swallow an earlier statement that “at least I’m not a carpenter” when talking about their position in the community of Nazareth. In a village or a town or a state or a country, standing is a hard thing to obtain and an even harder thing to lose.
I think the important thing to see here is that no great thing was accomplished because the people of Nazareth didn’t join with Jesus. Let me say that again. No great thing was accomplished because no one joined with Jesus.
So I think the common theme in this morning’s readings is ego and how it can get in the way of great works. And what does that have to do with the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence?
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal . . . “ As we read, hear, or speak those words on the fourth of July, don’t they sound a little hollow? I read recently about a woman making a presentation concerning race and racism and if we were in person today I would do what she did. Instead I will tell you what she did. She asked the people in her white audience to stand if they would like to trade places with a person of color. No one stood. She asked the question again. No one stood. She asked the question a third time saying come on now someone out there must want to trade places. No one stood. Then she said that the fact that no one stood made it pretty darn clear that all of them know what racial prejudice is and the pain that is born of it. She did not need to speak about that because they all, every one of them, knew. And in knowing they bore responsibility to make things change.
My wife Charlie and I are taking part in the program Sacred Ground in Franklin County here at Sts. James and Andrew. I think the hardest part of the program is coming to grips with the things that have been done in our names for our benefit. I think it is the hardest thing because the place where we white people are standing, our place in our community is supported by benefits we have or had, that came at the expense of others and most often of others of color. And to make it even more difficult the history of those benefits have been very carefully hidden in the history we were fed as we were growing up. I think very little of the writing of that history was done with malice toward anyone. I think it was done because we could make ourselves a little better off or a little better thought of if we white people could just hide that little piece of history.
My parents didn’t own slaves and as far as I can trace my ancestry none of my ancestors owned slaves but they certainly benefitted from slavery. My grandfather had a really good job as a bus driver because many of the people who worked in the cotton mills in my home town and county took the bus to get to work. Those mills existed because of the cheap labor and before that the slave labor in the cotton fields. My other grandfather had a really good job building transformers for the industry that rose to prominence as a result of cheap and before that, slave labor. My parents got off to a good start because of those good jobs, because of cheap labor. And I got off to a good start because my parents got off to a good start. That is my thorn, sort of like Paul’s, keeping me humble. Interestingly this thorn in my side only exists because I made an effort to educate myself about racism in America and how it came about. I had to put in some effort to uncover my advantage as a white male and come to grips with it. I have to want to participate with Jesus to make this the kind of world God wants it to be, to paraphrase our Presiding Bishop.
I firmly believe that we can accomplish “great works” if we can put aside our egos and fears and join together in believing the things that Jesus taught. I believe we can make the phrase “all people are created equal” ring true if we all join together to make all people equal in our actions and in our voices and in our votes. Like the people in Nazareth, I believe we white people might have to swallow a little bit of our pride, accept our past words, disparaging people of color, as being racist, accept that we have benefited from white privilege and begin working with our brothers and sisters of color to achieve equality.
Most especially I believe that we can do these things because of the Lord’s answer to Paul’s prayers to be released from the his thorn, “My grace is sufficient for you, My strength is made perfect in weakness.” Amen
We arrive at a parking lot still in the cool of the forest and still surrounded by deep greens, browns, blue and dots of white that have been a part of our day for the last several hours and we walk a path marked by signs directing us to Glacier Point. Just ahead we suddenly see the trailhead opening out to a view of the sky and to our right the top of Half Dome. You might have seen images of Half Dome. It is a huge granite mountain that looks like God took a knife and cut it in half down its center from top to bottom. It is gray as you would expect to see a mountain of granite. Think about the granite you have seen on the side of a building or on a counter top and them envision an entire mountain made of that material with shadows cast by the formations of the rock. There are charcoal grays and light grays and dark grays nearing black. As we continue, the light brightens as we leave the forest and enter the opening of the Glacier Point lookout. The greens and browns that have surrounded us have fallen away and we see the full brightness of this summer day. Our view is filled with the shades of gray of the granite mountains and of Half Dome in particular. The grays are blanketed in large swaths of evergreen forests that look like great green carpets from our view a thousand feet above the Yosemite Valley floor. We have to blink at the brightness of the light as it floods our eyes and, as we look toward Half Dome, we see dark thunderheads rising up behind it. Lightning arcs between the bald top of the mountain and the dark brooding sky. We see sheets of rain falling on Half Dame and then torrents of water steaming off of the rock as the rain washes the scene.
When that vista met my eyes I drew in a breath and held it and my eyes teared up. For a moment I could not breathe. I almost felt like I was floating as I gazed at the beauty God had created. I could feel God surrounding me. I had no thoughts just awe. When a thought finally worked its way into my consciousness it was that surely there has to be a God that has created this.
Epiphany is defined as “a moment of sudden revelation or insight”. While not all of us have had the chance to go to Glacier Point we have, most of us, had an experience of suddenly coming upon a view that has taken our breath away. I remember this one so clearly because it resonated so deeply inside me. The colors in the Fall, a waterfall in the woods, a raging stream in the Spring, a snowfall that coats all the bare branches, a magnificent sunset, all of these can evoke the kind of feeling I had at Glacier Point.
When I hear or read the passage from Isaiah that we just heard I get that feeling. The awe that accompanies the coming of our Lord to us. Theologians call it the enfleshment of God among us. The glory we hear in Isaiah and the psalm is like the presence of God in our world in places like Glacier Point. It takes our breath away and we are compelled to come and see and bring gifts. Our psalm today, Psalm 72, paints a picture of this glorious King’s son who cares for the poor and crushes the oppressor and yet is as gentle as rain upon the field. And the son brings peace and abundance forever. He is recognized by the powers in this world and they honor him. Most impressive though is that he delivers the poor and has pity on the lowly and preserves the needy; those who can offer him the least. All they can offer is themselves and their love and yet it is they who the King’s son preserves. Come and see this wondrous sight.
Come and see. You might remember that as Jesus was calling his disciples the call was to come and see. Paul, in the epistle reading today, is calling the gentiles of Ephesus to come and see “the mystery of Christ” “the boundless riches of Christ” and to carry that vision to “the rulers and authorities” This is Good News. And it is good news for the gentiles because it illuminates their inclusion in the promise that they too are heirs with the Hebrew people and members of same body in Christ Jesus. It should illuminate for us that all of creation is bathed in this light of Christ which we all can come and see.
One other place I find awe and wonder is in the eyepiece of my telescope. I would like you to think about those wise guys from the east who obviously kept an eye on the night sky. Imagine their surprise and delight in finding a new star in the heavens that seemed to portend a royal birth. I could say a lot about Herod and his wicked conniving to try to find and destroy the infant king. I think that speaks for itself and I think we sometimes don’t pay enough attention to awesomeness of God’s enfleshment in that tiny baby.
Any baby is awesome and the birth of a baby is double awesome. I have had the joyful honor of attending the birth of my three children and one of my grandchildren. It never gets old. It evokes feelings of tearful joy and breathless wonder. Now consider, for these three wise men from the east this was a trip of great time and distance to visit and honor a king whose coming called forth the heavens to produce a star. No minor tribute that. They arrive at a tiny wayside village and an out of the way cattle stall to find a poor family with a beautiful new born son being honored by the peasants from the surrounding community. They must have rechecked their calculations several times before they concluded that yes indeed this is the king whose star they have been following. And there, in that simple child was the glory of the universe. How could that not take your breath away. What a grand revelation!
Revelation. Wise men from the east. Shepherds from the fields. A poor family. The King’s son preserving the needy. All are the heirs of God. All these are revelations from our readings today. A revelation was given to me one cold winter evening at an outdoor service in Northampton. A friend who has lived in the streets gave witness, a very difficult witness, to how God entered her life, and then after she spoke she disappeared. I wanted to share the peace with her so I searched high and low but could not find her until the very end of the peace. “You couldn’t find me could
you?” she asked. No I admitted I couldn’t. She told me how her witness had brought back memories that terrified her and she sought comfort “in the back row along the wall where the people who live under the bridge stand.” “They have nothing,” she said, “all they have to give is themselves and their love and they give that freely.” I think we have a Christmas carol that speaks to that, it’s called In The Bleak Midwinter. Pay special attention to the last verse the next time you hear it.
God is present. God is in the world today. God is present in all that I saw on Glacier Point. God is present in every sunset. God is present in every waterfall. God is present in every child. We are surrounded by God every minute of every day. God is in every person we encounter, no matter who they may be. Epiphany should bring to mind the wonder of God’s presence in the world and the awe that attends that presence. Where will you see God today? Amen.
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