Psalm 29, 98
Isaiah 66: 18-23
One of my favorite sayings in the language of Twelve Step spirituality is “Don’t give up before the miracle happens.” That quote is often attributed to Fannie Flagg, but I don’t know whether she really invented it, or she borrowed it from the Twelve Step vocabulary list. It’s a great saying all the same.
For me, the Eve of Epiphany conjures up all the things in life that speak to the weariness, the potential despair, and the self-doubt that we all feel when that miracle is not yet in sight. We get a glimpse of what this must have been like for the Magi in T.S. Eliot’s immortal poem, “The Journey of the Magi.” (watch below) When we are on a journey that in some ways, seems assigned by others, and we are unsure of its meaning or implication for ourselves or the larger world around us, there are bound to be times that we feel the weight of it and the lack of purpose.
Our reading in Isaiah serves as a reminder that the big picture is not always evident when we are merely one of the pieces doing the “gathering” for a project not yet revealed. Our human nature is to prefer to be the mastermind behind the project; to direct that gathering of material and resources rather than to be one of the mindless “grunts” in the process. Most of us prefer clear instructions and a tangible outcome. Unfortunately, this is not usually the case in our lives and ministries.
A few days ago, I was made aware of a connection in my life that previously, simply didn’t exist. One of the ministries that I have volunteered for the past two years is a cold weather shelter 90 miles from me. Someone recently posted on Facebook a story of how a group of pre-medical scholarship recipients at the University of Missouri are an integral part of that ministry.
You see, part of the reason that scholarship was founded, and includes my undergraduate alma mater, Truman State University, was because of the relationship my medical school dean cultivated with me and two of my classmates. I, like the Magi, am generally a little distrustful of authority. My general attitude with authority figures is to hide from them and hope I am not seen, and “out of trouble.” Deans are people who tend to have enemies within the faculty and student body; it’s generally a good plan to stay out of anyone’s cross-hairs.
However, for me, that relationship changes when I find the authority figure has the ability to share his or her mistakes with me. I came to respect this dean because he was very blunt with me about HIS mistakes in life; so I became more able to converse, and even on occasion, disagree.
All that happened at a time that I was feeling very weary and beaten-up with life, and very unsure about my future. Now, almost two decades later, I saw how the links interconnected with my present life and ministry. The miracle had finally presented itself. I am grateful I did not give up before the miracle happened. I never could have imagined that a “difficult thing” at a “difficult time” in my life could ever hook to a present joy–but it did.
What changes for us in our “dark times” when we embrace the possibility that it is part of God’s gathering process for something better than we can ask for or imagine?
Maria Evans, a surgical pathologist from Kirksville, MO, writes about the obscurities of life, medicine, faith, and the Episcopal Church on her blog, Kirkepiscatoid
Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God. For I tell you that Christ has become a servant of the circumcised on behalf of the truth of God in order that he might confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy. As it is written,
‘Therefore I will confess you among the Gentiles,
and sing praises to your name’;
and again he says,
‘Rejoice, O Gentiles, with his people’;
‘Praise the Lord, all you Gentiles,
and let all the peoples praise him’;
and again Isaiah says,
‘The root of Jesse shall come,
the one who rises to rule the Gentiles;
in him the Gentiles shall hope.’
May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. — Romans 15:7-13 NRSV
Next to Advent, Epiphany is my favorite season of the church year. The expectation is over, the event has been celebrated, and now, like the party after the really great party, the church relaxes slightly, kicks off its shoes, has a little more champagne as it talks over the events of the party and enjoys taking a break before it gets into the penitence of Lent and the unrestrained joy of Easter.
One year I wanted to really welcome Epiphany and celebrate it to the fullest. Being the wordy person that I am, and also wanting to try to cultivate an attitude of gratitude, I decided to write a letter to God every day of the season, looking at ordinary, everyday things and trying to see the sacred in them. It worked. I noticed so many more things I certainly would have missed. It also taught me about something I would later come to know as theological reflection and its look at an event, a text, a picture, a movie or an experience through the lenses of tradition, culture, position and action. I welcomed the discipline of writing, and I continued it for quite a while. Maybe I should take it up again. The attitude of gratitude has worn off a bit and needs to be re-honed.
But thinking about welcomes, I have to recall the Sunday I first tuned in to a stream of a service at All Saints’, Pasadena. My stepson had encouraged me to watch to see if I could see him and his partner in the congregation but mostly, I think, to show me “his” church and the kind of place that drew them both in. I watched, and honestly, I felt more welcome through the computer monitor than I have in most churches I have visited in person. If that first visit online was any indication, I thought, it’s no wonder that church is growing and flourishing. It reminded me that welcome doesn’t mean just shaking hands at the door and offering coffee or a short blurb in the break between the liturgy of the word and that of the table. It’s an ongoing theme, expressed again and again as if to make sure the message sinks in: you are welcome here, no matter who you are, where you come from, where you are in faith or in no faith, and what you’ve done in the past. If it weren’t for the distance, I’d probably say “Sign me up now!” I felt like I was seeing how the future of Christianity could be assured.
Paul’s words to the Romans encourage them to welcome one another, practicing the kind of greeting and attention that Jesus offered not only to the Jews but to the Gentiles — the Syrophoenician woman, the Roman centurion, the Gerasene demonic and others. Not the hospitality of house and home, not even the extending the gifts of food and good conversation, rather it was the sense of his attention focused on them and their problems, his interaction with them to heal them, and his willingness to do this again and again for people who were complete strangers and who he would undoubtedly never see again. He embraced them into and with his presence and eased their burdens. What more radical welcome could there be?
Whether on paper (or electrons), in person, on the road, in church, at work, on the phone, there are a hundred ways to show welcoming every day to both friend and stranger, believer and unbeliever. When I write I invite people into my mind and heart just as I feel invited into the minds and hearts of those whose words I read. I can feel welcomed by a friendly clerk at a grocery or department store or a priest standing before an altar in church. I can look forward to the welcome into heaven when the time comes, and I can welcome Jesus into my heart every day. And I can enjoy the time of each church season with its particular gifts and insights.
Welcome, Epiphany. I am looking forward to your visit and your lessons