Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Our Epiphany God

I did not plan on a big “do.” But ever since I was a little boy who served as an acolyte and ever since my first volunteer job at a summer day camp at a local Salvation Army, I’ve wanted to be a priest. They say “be careful what you pray for!” Well, after thirty years, all I can say is this: this ministry, this life of faith, has been everything and nothing like I’ve expected.

Hmm. Kind of like life, huh? Funny thing, this God of ours; always full of surprises.

I’ve discovered that our God is one given to epiphanies. Epiphanies are moments when God is revealed. A memento sits on my bookshelf from one of my past churches. It is made of wood and is the word “AHA!”

That was someone reminding me that when God is revealed, the epiphany comes as an “Aha!”

Because God is given to epiphanies, if we want to be attentive to God we have to be ready for surprise. Now I am not a big fan of surprise parties and my kids make great sport out of the fact that I startle easily but dealing with the unexpected is part of life, and so is at the heart of the life of faith. If everything happened the way it was always supposed to with no variation, with no unexpected turns, then why bother having faith? A life with no surprise is not a life of faith, it’s a routine.

But God knows that life is in fact nothing if not growth and change. That is how we are made. We may cope with that by having our routine…which is why the church has a liturgical year, seasons, and traditions…but God uses even those to remind us that things move, change and renew.

Sometimes we don’t do change very well. I am a member of that rare species of priests who is also a “cradle Episcopalians” (with an excursis into the Jesus Movement of the 1970's) and in all that time I have watched first hand people walk out of church when something changed that they did not like. And I am not just talking about prayer books, hymnals, the King James Bible or altar placement. I have also seen people walk out of church when my home parish called its first African-American Rector. I have seen people refuse to come to church ever again after they found out that one of their priests was divorced. I have seen people scratch the hands of a woman priest delivering them communion and storm out of church. I have seen people leave because they found out their priest was gay and partnered. And the really painful part of it all was that none of these were necessarily bad people who did not want to follow Jesus faithfully. All of them knew they had the Bible on their side. It was just that something they had always counted on to remain fixed had changed and as the old ad said "they'd rather fight than switch.".

Never mind that the clergy they were walking away from were faithful Christians, gentle pastors, strong leaders, even courageous people. Never mind that people had lived among blacks, women, and gays for years “just not as ministers” when in fact, in baptism, we are all ministers. It was the change. This was for them not a pleasant epiphany. These were“a-ha” that they wished we could send back. Instead, God puts us in community and invites to work out God’s epiphany in Jesus Christ together and this is not always easy. It can be costly but epiphanies are like that, too.

I think about the Dr. Seuss book “Oh, The Places You’ll Go!” There is a theme in the places where I’ve been. Growing up in a mainly African-American church as a suburban white kid, being newly married and experiencing the early days of the AIDS epidemic, being a person who hates surprise serving as an emergency room chaplain. It's not that God is a practical joker, but rather that God, the God of epiphanies, always wants us to go deeper. God is always calling to the place that challenges us the most. If we choose to go there, we find that God is always with us.

God wants us to be holy. Holy does not mean static (although sometimes that means still…!), it means set apart. To be truly set apart, God wants us to love better, think more, and enjoy life. Holiness means being at once silent when we need to be, creative when we can be, and compassionate to those we meet. Faithfulness is being attentive to what is around us and being ready to change when we need to. That means being faithful is always a choice.

Some say that God, at best, must be far away and never gets involved in the creation God set in motion. I don’t believe that. Creation tells us that God is involved. The incarnation, life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and the gift of the Holy Spirit shows us that God is not stuck “out there” but is “with us.” Often in surprising, even startling, ways.

We can choose to live our Christian life in a bubble—a kind of spiritual geodesic dome where we can control our whole environment from the inside and keep a world we are scared of outside—or we can live and breathe in God’s world as God made it with all its wonder, beauty, and—yes—even the pain and uncertainty. Faith is not faith if it is lived in isolation. If we are only faithful when things are the way we expect, if our faith only holds us up when things are going our way, then what kind of faith is that?

I think God loves it when we “get it.” When we discover something new about ourselves, God and creation, I believe that God cheers. I believe God smiles when we have an “a-ha!”

God knows that not every epiphany is pleasant or happy. God loves us through the process when the epiphany is in fact a conversion, which can be painful. God is patient with us when we resist the epiphany right in front of us. That’s why grace is amazing.

My hope for the next thirty years of ministry is this: that in the company of brave, faithful and creative Christians we will step out of our bubbles and greet with joy our Epiphany God.

Thank you all for everything you have taught me about living faithfully and joyfully as an epiphany people of God!

(I wrote this on the day of my 30th anniversary of my ordination to the priesthood for publication in the January newsletter of Trinity, Easton, "Glad Tidings." This is why I am talking about Epiphany while we are still in Advent. )

Join in the celebration! Please give a chair and a desk to our adopted school, Trinity New Hope Primary School in Sodogo, Kajo-Keji, South Sudan.  Find out more here

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