January 27, 2018
Grace Episcopal Church
The Rev. Dr. Kathy Dunagan
There’s a funny line I remember from the famous sit com, Friends. Phoebe, the stereotypical “dumb blonde” (played by the brilliant Lisa Kudrow) says something remarkable in this brief scene. Now, this is late in the 2nd season and in the 47th episode of weekly scenes that have taken place in the coffee shop where the gang hangs out. The coffee shop is across from Central Park in New York and Phoebe suddenly sees the name of the coffee shop on the store front and says, “Oh! Central Perk! I just got that!”
It’s funny because it took her 47 episodes to get the play on words - and maybe half the fans of the show took that long to get it too.
This is an epiphany moment.
I have had moments like Phoebe’s. They seem to come more rapidly the older I get. You know, all of a sudden there is the realization of the double meaning in a logo or punch line. Like the name of our parish newsletter - Grace Notes - I get it - but it took me a couple of months. The double meaning is a reference to those short little musical notes that ornament a piece of music. It’s primary meaning is those little messages that keep us all informed of what’s going on around here.
Well, the Bible is like that too. There are little “grace notes” throughout. Little surprises and “aha” moments when we study the Word of God. Little moments in our continual study of the Word that cause us to understand Grace better. There’s another double meaning because Grace is the name of our parish. Grace is who we are.
This week’s Gospel lesson is no exception to the surprises we encounter in scripture.
Jesus reads the scripture in a Sunday morning church service, of sorts. He specifically reads the words of the great prophet Isaiah, and then sits down in the rabbinic place of sitting to teach. This is topsy turvy. He didn’t even go to seminary! And now he’s just shown up and announced that he is not only a rabbi, which is surprising enough to the assembly, but, well, he’s also actually the long awaited messiah.
This must have been astonishing to everyone that heard this. And it wasn’t just in one synagogue, he apparently went on a tour and hit the local parish of each community with this message.
If you remember where we are in the story, Jesus was born, escaped murder in Egypt as a toddler, moved to Nazareth when things were safe and finished growing up. Then, when it was time to begin his ministry he began with Baptism by John in the river Jordan and then he suffered 40 days and nights of wilderness and temptation from Satan.
His reading of this prophesy is the next thing he does, according to Luke. So it is the first thing he does after these other preparatory things.
Now, John tells us that the first miracle of Jesus, the first thing he did after Baptism, was to turn water into wine at that wedding in Cana. That’s where the lectionary took us last week.
But this week we look at it from Luke’s perspective - The first thing Jesus does after his Baptism and this purification of sorts in that tussle with the devil, the first thing he does is take his rightful place as the Rabbi. The first thing he does is to take his rightful place, no doubt as the Messiah. And he sits down among these assemblies and begins to teach us.
And the rest of the story is mostly about what he teaches. He teaches through lectures like this and he teaches through actions like healing folks. He teaches us to love, he teaches us to go and tell the good news, he teaches us to trust in the Spirit to lead us, and he commands us to take up our cross and follow him.
What does it mean to follow Jesus? Here are some thoughts from Richard Rohr:
“I believe that we are invited to gaze upon the image of the crucified Jesus to soften our hearts toward all suffering, to help us see how we ourselves have been “bitten” by hatred and violence, and to know that God’s heart has always been softened toward us. In turning our gaze to this divine truth—in dropping our many modes of scapegoating and self-justification—we gain compassion toward ourselves and all others who suffer.
History is continually graced with people who somehow learned to act beyond and outside their self-interest and for the good of the world, people who clearly operated by a power larger than their own. The Nelson Mandelas of the world, the Oskar Schindlers, the Martin Luther King, Jrs. Add to them Rosa Parks, Mother Teresa, Dorothy Day, Oscar Romero, Cesar Chavez, and (Michael Curry. Add to that also) many other “unknown soldiers.” These inspiring figures give us strong evidence that the mind of Christ still inhabits the world. Most of us are fortunate to have crossed paths with many lesser-known persons who exhibit the same presence. I can’t say how one becomes such a person. All I can presume is that they all had their Christ moments, in which they stopped denying their own shadows, stopped projecting those shadows elsewhere, and agreed to own their deepest identity in God.
But it is not an enviable position, this Christian thing. Following Jesus is a vocation to share the fate of God for the life of the world. To allow what God for some reason allows—and uses. And to suffer ever so slightly what God suffers eternally.
This has little to do with believing the right things about God—beyond the fact that God is love. Those who agree to carry and love what God loves, both the good and the bad, and to pay the price for its reconciliation within themselves—these are the followers of Jesus Christ. They are the leaven, the salt, the remnant, the mustard seed that God uses to transform the world. The cross, then, is a very dramatic image of what it takes to be usable for God. It does not mean you are going to heaven and others are not; rather, it means you have already entered heaven and thus can see things in a transcendent, whole, and healing way now.
At convention this weekend, we listened to each other share our experiences with getting caught up in the Spirit. We were preparing for today’s revival (at the Bergland Center in Roanoke with Presiding Bishop Michael Curry.)
Bishop Curry talked a lot. There is too much of what he said to quote but this one thing he talked about stayed with me. He said that Christians must use a rule of life, or rule of thumb as he put it, to prioritize a life of love. He said that most of what Jesus taught us was about how to love our neighbor as ourself.
If we live with this priority of love, then we can always ask ourselves this question in each little momentary decision: “Is this about me or is it about love?” He elaborated on this and said that we should always ask this question of ourselves every day, every decision. Is this decision I’m making or thing I’m about to say or thing I’m about to do about loving the other or is it about loving the self? Am I about to spew words of hate or attack someone defensively? Or am I entering into relationship, listening, bending, forgiving and patient?
Then he talked a lot about how to go out into the mission field of our neighborhood, how to spread the love, how to care for the poor, the downtrodden, the hungry. There was a lot said this weekend about how to do that, how to be good Christians. There was a lot said about how to open ourselves to be renewed through efforts of spiritual revival. There was a lot said about living out the commandment of Jesus to follow him.
But we kept coming back to this one basic tenet of our faith. Sacrificial, sacramental, selflessness.
We can’t follow Jesus if we don’t stop trying to run the world our way.
We can’t follow Jesus if we don’t stop judging our neighbor.
We can’t follow Jesus if we don’t open our hearts to the manifestation of the mystery of the incarnation.
We can’t follow Jesus if we don’t turn around in repentant expectation of God’s daily surprises and epiphanies.
So, that it took Phoebe 47 hours of situation comedy before she noticed the play on words is a simple reminder that we too have “aha” moments when we realize we may have missed something along the way. The holiest of moments is not when we hear the word of God or the law or the menu for our daily consumption and mutter to each other, “I knew that.” No. The holiest of all of life is those moments when we turn and recognize the Christ in the blatant right-before-us ways we overlooked before. A holy life is one in which enough humility is mixed with enough love to open our eyes to the surprises all around us all the time.
Just after I first moved to Radford I checked out Wildwood Park by driving by and trying to see what it looked like. I drove by the trail head down by the round about, I drove by the entrance off of Main Street over by National Bank and saw the foot of that steep staircase that goes up the other side of the ravine. I drove behind the high school when it was closed and tried to see the trail from near that bird watching deck back there. I never could see much. It was summer time and the trees were all full of leaves.
But on Christmas Day the weather warmed up and I was walking my dog Prancer and I decided to walk over to the high school and check it out. When I got to that bird watching deck I could finally see the park. This was because of three things. First, I ventured away from my usual routine, my usual route around in the same circle here in the neighborhood. Second, I was walking instead of driving so I had to stop and get a little closer and put down my phone and listen and I could hear the park, I could hear the wind in the trees, the ripple of the creek. I could feel, taste and smell the park too. The third difference was that there were no leaves on the trees. This opened up all those woods so that I could see. And a whole new world was opened up to me and Prancer. We easily found the path. We easily followed the path. The rest was easy too. The rest was adventure and renewal and encounter with God’s creation and with God’s people.
This was and Epiphany moment.
I hope for us here at Grace Radford a new awareness like that. I hope and pray and even expect that God has many surprises in store for us in the near future. And, while I don’t think any of us is particularly selfish, I mean just look around at all the good works we do in the New River Valley! - It might be a good idea to do some introspection and root out our sinfulness in order to meet those surprises as they come lest we are blind to them.
If we can’t open ourselves to change, we might miss those opportunities the Spirit sends our way. And we might never notice the signs. And we might get stuck in the past or stuck in the present.
But each and every moment is an opportunity to see all the new ways Jesus is leading us to a better life of love and relationship.
 Adapted from Richard Rohr, The Universal Christ: How a Forgotten Reality Can Change Everything We See, Hope For, and Believe (Convergent Books: 2019), 152-153.