Last Sunday after the Epiphany Sermon

February 11, 2024
Preacher: The Rev. Eric Stelle

I know today’s the Superbowl. But I don’t have anything to say about that. I’ve never a Superbowl person.

I’ve been reading about the Olympics happening this summer in Paris. Did you know the Olympic medals are each going to have a little piece of iron from the actual Eiffel Tower embedded right at their center? And that, for years, they’ve been cleaning the River Seine so that long-distance swimming events can be held in the river! And the Parade of Nations won’t be held in a stadium. It’s also going to be on the river – a three-mile long floating procession of barges, carrying all the athletes, for everyone to see – the whole city assembled alongside the embankments.

And as I’ve read these stories, it’s reminded me of being a child and just how much the Olympics thrilled me. I’ve never been particularly sporty, but I loved the Olympics! I loved the pageantry. I loved the patriotism and that surge of pride when an American stood on the gold medal block, the flag rising above them while the Star-Spangled Banner began to play. In 1984 I loved Mary Lou Retton. (I absolutely had a crush on her!) I just loved how special the whole thing was, how for a few weeks, every four years, this glorious spectacle burst into our lives and our living rooms – that by virtue of being human in this world, we were given this wonderful perk: the Olympics!

And when I got a little older (I was probably a teen-ager at the time), I had this eye-opening epiphany: If the Olympics never existed at all, I’d never know to miss them. I mean, there’s nothing inherent to humanity that says we must have the Olympics. Life would carry on without them, just like it always does.

But we do have them. And (all the geo-politics and corruption issues aside) our global humanity in this age does include this exciting, exceptional celebration.

And that teenage epiphany of mine has stayed with me ever since as a truism for everything in this life as we know it. God could have made any cosmos, however God wanted, but God made this cosmos. And God made this earth, to function in this way with this periodic table of elements and this need of water, inhabited by this human species with these five senses.

It could have been anything – any form at all. But in the end, it required an actual form – a particular way of being – that simply is. “To be” means we must be something specific.

And, I believe, it is this elemental awareness that lies at the heart of healthy aging – especially as we move through middle age and into our later years. “Aging well” means living into the particularity of who we are. When we were young and dreaming of the life to come, the whole world lay before us: We could have any career, live anywhere, be married to any person.

But as we age, this limitless potential gets traded in, piece-by-piece, for very specific realities: We have this body with this hair; this spouse in this house; these children; this faith, and on and on. And wisdom asks of us: How will you receive, and live into, this particular gift that is “you”?

We can rebel against it – against what we feel to be the tyranny of our particularity and its limitations, diving headlong into whichever midlife crisis woos us. Or we can just turn out the light altogether, settling into a kind of bored, familiar depression.

Or we can embrace our particularity. We can begin striding with a degree of confidence and purpose into the true and splendid images of God we each uniquely are – unencumbered by all the things we are not, and were never called to be in the first place.

Yes, we could have been anything…which translates into nothing at all. What we are, and must be, is one thing – one, particular thing. And that one thing is wonderful, because it is. It is: you, me, St. John’s, Christianity, the Christ.

And that is where this whole discourse is heading…

God could have chosen any way to communicate God’s nature to us: God’s values, God’s redemption and healing, God’s person. But like everything else in God’s creation, for it to be real, it needed to become one thing – one actual, incarnate, specific thing. And that thing is Jesus, the Christ – Jesus of Nazareth. In one body, in one life, in one place and time, the fullness of God was pleased to dwell (Colossians 1:19).

As children, it was easy enough to accept the particularity of Jesus, and however faith in him was communicated to us. But as we aged, as we grew into the complexity of this world, it became natural (appropriate even) to begin questioning the limitations of that particularity: Is Jesus the only way to heaven? Did his death really take away the sins of the world? And, if so, how? And what about all the other religions? Or those who believe nothing at all? And so his particularity began to feel capricious or tribal or insufficient or suspect.

I’ve certainly struggled with this, as I’m sure you all have. And I say so with no shame. As thinking people, we must venture down such paths. We must do our human work of struggling to make sense of this tangible world, and her intangible God and the elemental question, “What’s it all about?”

I often pray here, alone in the church. I watch that tabernacle with its crucifix, with its flickering red light meant to assure the faithful that therein dwells the Real Presence of Christ. And my prayers often return to one prayer: “Who are you, Jesus? Who are you?” It’s not enough for me simply to have theology about Jesus. I want to know him and who he truly is.

And, increasingly, the encouragement I receive is this: God is and always has been. And God made this world we know with this humanity. And God provided this Christ to be the living, tangible union of the two. God took human form at the appropriate time, when his legacy could be transmitted – through scripture, through tradition, through community (all these human things) and through the Spirit – throughout the centuries and around the world, unto this place, this time, this person. You can trust the Jesus you have received through the heritage of the church. And as you seek him, you will know him, more and more. And the Christ you come to know will be more intimate than you hoped, and equally more transcendent.

For if, indeed, Christ is God’s actual union with humanity, we can be assured that this union far exceeds any boundaries we assign it. In our particularity, we and every Christian community cannot help but to claim Christ in our own, distinctive way. And (we trust) Christ will meet us there. But he is also meeting people there…and there…and there. For surely, if Christ is God’s intended union with humanity, he will be contained by no one or one tradition. If God is making union with us, nothing will be a barrier to God’s intent.

It is sufficient, for me, to meet Christ here, in this tradition that is forming me. I am but one and can be no more, and my one-ness must take one form. But I am also trusting God to be one with this world in ways beyond my ken or seeking – that God’s one-ness will be as it must be.

And it pleases me to trust and imagine this larger work and presence of God throughout God’s creation and beyond: God deep within the earth, in the ocean trenches and the red-hot lava; God in the chickadees at my feeder; God in the vastness of the night sky and whatever eternity exists beyond.

And linking me to that vast eternity of God’s reality and presence, is this Christ – so like me and so like the Father with whom he is one.

And when Christ sojourned with us in this life – in this world, in his body – there was one moment, one point in time, when the veil was torn back and the mystery of his union with God and union with us was revealed. He’d gone up a mountain to pray (as he often did), bringing three friends with him. And while he was praying, God rent the heavens and the light of God shone from within him, transforming him, for a moment. And in that moment, God gave him more friends – ones from Israel’s past, now residents of heaven – to coach him and prepare him for what lay ahead in his earthly mission. Then the cloud of God’s presence overshadowed them all, and from the cloud came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!”

And so they did. And so do we.

We listen to Jesus to show us the way – the way to live and the way to die. For this is the journey that Moses and Elijah were preparing him. He came down from the mountain and set his to face to Jerusalem, where all would reject him (including his friends) and he would suffer and where he would die, as must we all.

For God’s union with us is complete. It is a union of life. It is a union in death. And, by God’s will and intent, it is a union beyond the grave where God’s life and ours, will never cease to be and become, together.

Of that, we have the merest glimpse: Christ risen from the grave and ascended to heaven. But that glimpse is sufficient to give us hope as we sojourn on with Christ, in these days we are given.

I spoke with Timmie Parker yesterday. She’s well into her nineties and, until recently, has lived alone in her home most impressively. But she hurt her back two weeks ago (stacking firewood!) and since then has been in excruciating pain. She’s in a care facility where they’re doing their best to manage it. But their “best” isn’t doing much good.

“I’m going to miss Ash Wednesday,” she said, “the first time I’ve ever missed it.” “Ah, Timmie,” I told her, “you know the liturgy. You know its message, through and through. Where you are now is an Ash Wednesday and Lenten liturgy all its own, one you are inhabiting.” “Yes,” she said, with tears, “I know.” Then after a pause, she added, “My cat is with me. He knows something’s wrong, and hardly leaves my bed.”

Throughout her life, and in these last years, especially, Timmie has sought to know Christ: Christ of the incarnation, Christ of the Transfiguration, Christ of the cross, Christ of the tomb, Christ of the resurrection. And Christ, I pray, is with her now, meeting her in her Lenten room, in her bed, in her back, and through her cat: tangible and warm, purring beneath her caressing hands.