Thursday, January 23, 2014

Encounter, Story, Curiosity: Going Public in Epiphany

The process had started innocently enough.  Lily Myers, a 20-year old sophomore at Wesleyan College in Connecticut, wrote a quite personal poem about her family.  Then that poem, entitled “Shrinking Women,” won the 2013 College Unions Poetry Slam Invitational last April.  The three-minute video of her winning performance was posted on YouTube.  Over the summer, more people steadily watched the video.  Then a friend sent it to an alum who worked at the Huffington Post, one of the most popular online sources for news and cultural commentary.  The Post recommended it in October.  Then Upworthy, another popular online page, recommended it.  The video went viral and now has 3.5 million views.  Another hundred thousand this week alone.  For a poem.  By a college student.  A serious poem about gender stereotypes and body image.  On Monday, Robin Young of NPR’s Here and Now interviewed the poet, who’s still in shock.  She wrote a poem about an encounter with the truth that resonated deeply with her, and as she shared it, her story resonated deeply with others.  Lots and lots of others.

Now John the Baptist had been sent by God to baptize folks with water to prepare the way for the coming of the Messiah.  He’d know who this was by a sign: when you see the Holy Spirit descend and remain on someone, that’s your man.  How much time passed between this divine insight and Jesus’ arrival?  Who knows?  But Jesus does arrive, and the Spirit does descend on him like a dove, and the public encounters with the Christ begin.  John, wide-eyed, becomes Christ’s first evangelist.  “Behold!  The Lamb of God!” John would cry out, pointing.  
When Jesus came back the next day, and when John blurted out his incredulous proclamation yet again, two of his disciples heard.  And followed Jesus out of the curiosity John’s story had kindled in them.  Who was this man?!  Seeking an encounter themselves with the Holy One, the Anointed One, the Christ, they scuffle slowly along the dusty path some distance behind Jesus until he turns around and says, “What are you looking for?”  And when Jesus invites them into his life, they remain the rest of the day.  Now these two ex-disciples of John are the wide-eyed ones.  Andrew runs back to the house to grab his brother Simon: “You’ve got to come and see!  We’ve found the Messiah!”  Simon runs to Jesus, and his encounter leaves him utterly changed.  Jesus marks this by changing his name to Peter.

And so it went: every encounter with Jesus, the Son of God, the eternal Word, God’s Truth incarnate, sent each person out to his or her friends and neighbors, coworkers and cousins with a new story.  These new stories kindled fresh curiosity that drew more and more people into an encounter with our Savior.  Encounter, story, curiosity -- encounter, story, curiosity -- encounter, story, curiosity: for two thousand years.  And here we are today.

Why are you here?  Did someone in your past tell you a story that kindled the curiosity that drew you near to God?  You sought then God in prayer, or in Scripture, or in an inspired conversation or in a startling act of compassion.  Do you now have a new story to tell?

Or are you here out of curiosity?  Have you heard a story of healing or forgiveness or love that seemed too good to be true?  Did someone tell you in all seriousness that God loves you no matter what?  If you’re curious, you’ve come to the right place: like John the Baptist, the Church has helped point people toward encounters with God for a long, long time.  It does this through its members and its Holy Scripture and through its sacraments.  So take that first step and introduce yourself to one of our members at the welcome table outside.  Join us at the rail for communion and taste holiness.  Walk to the healing station and receive a prayer for wholeness and health.

Or maybe you’ve done these things and you’re wondering what’s next.  Have you ever read a Bible story a few times and then imagined yourself as part of the story, perhaps observing from the back of the room as Jesus heals the paralyzed man or turns the wedding water into wine?  Scripture’s stories can also generate new curiosity that will lead us back into bright encounters with God.

And some of us here have already had an encounter or two with the holy, and we have stories to share, but we cannot tell them for they do not make sense to us and we’re sure they won’t make sense to others.  If that’s true for you, I’d like to invite you to participate in a wonderful experience of group discernment that we call our Listening Hearts ministry.  Over a few hours of your time on a Saturday God is present with you and a few trained and caring parishioners who are praying that the Spirit help you understand and articulate more clearly a truth already inside of you. In the silences and questions and even confusion, epiphanies emerge. I wonder what you might discover about yourself and about your encounters with the holy if you participated in a Listening Hearts session?

And such self-awareness can be very, very powerful.  Look at what some honest reflection by the college poet Lily Myers led to!  Indeed, it is stories that allure us, inspire us, and compel us to action.  Stories that mean something, that mean what they say because they come deep from within who we are.  Now is the time, during this season of Epiphany, the season of the Church that invites us to make known Christ to the world, that we might revisit our own story of faith, to remember and retell anew our treasured experiences of God-with-us.  God calls us to share these stories with those around us.  Curiosity will follow.

In this age of social media, sharing our stories is easier and more influential than ever.  As Christians, we represent Christ and the Church to the world.  How will we share, like, tweet, and otherwise send out our treasured stories into the world to God’s greater glory?

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Remembering the Familiar

Text from a sermon delivered during the Christmas Eve family service

Welcome. Welcome to St. Paul’s Cathedral. We are delighted you are here with us on this holy night. 

But you’ve been here before. Well, maybe not this place, or if you have been to the Cathedral, maybe it’s been a while. Or maybe you’ve sat on another church’s wooden pews (or folding chairs, as the case may be), and smelled the piney wreaths, or stared at the stained glass. And even if you’ve never stepped foot into a church until now, you’ve still been here before. Because as a child you knew that something great was happening on this night. Something you couldn’t explain but felt with great certainty. Then you waited expectantly beside brothers and sisters or cousins for your parents to finish dinner or get out of bed the next morning so you could open a present; then you let the music of the season write its melodies deep within you; then you wondered on a cold, clear night just what that wild star over Bethlehem would have looked like. 

But you grew up, and like a shepherd you’ve roamed untamed hillsides and managed dangerous valleys trying your best to keep your flock and yourself together. It wasn’t easy, it isn’t easy. Some nights you awoke and only the great questions sat beside your bed. Other nights, you were surprised by the sense that God’s great Love wouldn’t let you go. 

And when the angels came dazzling white and powerful and pointing toward a small stable on the outskirts of town, you drew near to that place, relenting, and put down your pack and gazed on the face of the Christ Child, quiet and vulnerable and unspeakably holy, and you were undone. There, there, you have been there before. 

We have been here before, year after year, century after century, a people overcome by curiosity with the Child born two millennia ago. Come! Come closer and see! See his fingers tiny and perfect, his just-opened eyes. Hear a cow lowing, a sheep bleating, a donkey stomping. Take in the starlight radiating from this simple shelter, the relief on the face of the father, the calm love pouring forth from the mother. Warm your hands, wait for a nod from his parents, and place your fingers gently on his chest. Touch him. 

It is unsteadying this memory that is not just another story in a book, or even another reading from the Bible, this memory that already resides inside each of us, housed deep and waiting for us to return and be made strong yet again by its blessed food. Now it is time to feast together. 

In minutes we will invite the children to join us at the altar while we prepare the feast for God’s people. This is the feast of more than enough, the feast of plenty and then some, the feast that celebrates the day when God’s Son, God’s only Son, whom God loves, came to be among us. 

Our elders once said that a little child would lead us. Here he is, where we have been before, this place where a memory will not fade but will only grow, inviting us again and again into the mystery of God-with-us, into the dear truth that God loves us more than we could ever ask or imagine. It is the truth that rings out in golden, glorious song on this cold, clear night when we search, and find, a wild star within the cosmos, a hopeful Light within the darkness, the Christ Child in a bed of straw. 

We are never alone. God has been here before. To be with us. So come, young and old, and let us adore Him.