First of all, I am humbled, and slightly nervous to be here today. I've preached a few times at the Thursday morning Eucharist, but the last time I approached a pulpit on a Sunday morning was in 1984, at St Peter's church, Chelsea, in New York City.
It was an emotionally charged time in the church, especially in New York. After seminary I worked in the AIDS community and I was very displeased at what I felt was a weak and tentative response by the church to the AIDS crisis. I was disappointed for many reasons and stood in opposition against much of what was happening around me. My voice from the pulpit that day was forceful, provocative and even angry.
Three decades later I'm back in the process for ordination, speaking to you, a new generation of God's chosen people, and finding a new voice. So if this voice shakes, becomes tentative or stumbles, I beg your patience and support.
Our communal religious heritage is very important to me. I am new to you in this role and as we get to know one another you will hear me speak of us collectively as "this generation of God's Chosen People". My Old Testament professor at General Seminary, Fr Boyce Bennett, began our first class by explaining that God thinks in generations. God's promise was delivered to Abraham and all the generations that followed him. And the apostle Paul reminded us that we are the sons and daughters of Abraham. So if a generation is 20 years, and it has been 2000 years since Christ walked the earth; we, this gathering here and now, are the 100th generation of the faithful followers of Christ in the light of the resurrection.
Also very important to me is our liturgical heritage - something for which we Anglicans are well known. The seasons of the church year follow the arc of our sacred journey and provide the context for the stories of our heritage. Each season dovetails into the next and builds a structure for celebrating God's promises.
Only a short time ago God boldly intervened in our history at Christmas -- the Incarnation - and after 12 days Epiphany began. And as we transition into Lent, I'd like to look back.
Last week, David eloquently defined our call to servanthood as the "διακονία". That inspired me to haul out my Greek dictionary to get started with this sermon.
The Greek word ἐπιφάνεια, means a "manifestation” or a "striking appearance". Today we use "epiphany" to describe a moment, an event, in which one suddenly sees something in a new and unexpected way. "I had an epiphany!" - or as Oprah calls it, "an ah-ha moment".
I'm a scuba diver. If you have gone diving you know that all the gear, especially the heavy air tanks, seem designed to make one feel awkward and anything but graceful. But once I'm in the water the cumbersome equipment no longer burdens me; I feel weightless and become absorbed into the environment. The amazing colors and gentle dance of the fish and coral take over my thoughts and I leave my worries back on land. But what is most captivating to me about diving is the sheer and complete silence of being deep below the surface. The ocean cradles me in its silence and the entire experience becomes a meditation. I feel serene.
Each winter when the North Pacific waters become intolerably cold, humpback whales migrate south to feed and raise their calves in the warm waters around Hawaii. One December I was diving with friends in the channel between Maui and Lanai. There wasn't anything unusual about the dive except perhaps that we had descended deeper than usual, well over 100 feet. We were getting ready to start our ascent when something very strange happened. I began to shake and at the same time, I felt paralyzed. I got goose bumps all over as a powerful vibration took over my body, from head to toe, penetrating down and through my bones. I had never felt anything like it before and I was stunned and confused, even frightened. I looked around at my friends and they had all stopped swimming as well. We were all just sitting there motionless at the bottom of the channel.
Afterward, back in the boat our dive guide asked, "So what did you think of the whales?" Perplexed, we said, "What whales? We didn't see any whales!" And then he explained that the sensation we had all felt was whale songs passing through our bodies. Whales communicate at frequencies so low that our human ears can't hear them, but our bodies had vibrated from their sound waves moving through the water. At 100 feet deep, not my ears but my entire body had 'heard' whales talking to one another and inadvertently, talking to me. As I rested in the boat I realized that I'd experienced something unimaginable and absolutely indelible.
During Christmas, God became human. And in Epiphany, Jesus is revealed as the Son of God. We began with John the Baptist's prophecy that God was soon going to act in a new way. Then Jesus took over the message, bumped it up a notch and we moved from anticipation to revelation. Jesus started low in the water for baptism and ends today high on a mountain in glory, in relationship with his spiritual ancestors, and setting the stage for the greatest epiphany of all - his death and resurrection.
Hear the commands God uses during Epiphany:
Many years ago I read, "The Wounded Healer", by Henri Nouwen. The book had a major impact on me at a pivotal time in my life and I go back to it again and again. Nouwen believed that we can only become effective ministers of God's grace by being totally authentic with one another; and to be authentic requires first that we look closely at and know our own wounds, and then share them with one another. Nowen said,
"[Jesus] showed us all that the very things we often flee - our vulnerability and mortality - can, at any moment, become the place of holy transfiguration."
When we open ourselves enough, become vulnerable enough, we experience God's glory in such a way that nothing less than radical and complete transformation happens.
Today's story is not just a miracle around which to build a shrine, as Peter mistakenly suggested; but a huge source of strength, a promise that as we move into Lent we are emboldened to take up our cross. Because like the 99 generations of God's chosen before us, we don't get the resurrection without the cross. Light cannot shine into a tomb that isn't first dark.
Two years ago, almost to this very day, I first met with my discernment group here at St Michael's. The initial purpose of our work together was simply to help me find my place in this spiritual community. After 6 months of prayer, telling our stories, and listening in silence for guidance from the Spirit, the issue of ordination took over the conversation. Together we shared many of our wounds as well as our victories. And change occurred.
The Transfiguration isn't just one in a series of miracles during Epiphany -- one last injection of spiritual good "joo-joo" before entering the dark days of Lent. For me, today's story underscores God's promise to be always present, lovingly and powerfully so, as we move through the rhythm of our spiritual lives -- desert to Promised Land, vulnerability to wholeness, cross to resurrection.
When my spiritual friends in the Discernment Guild held me close to them, my heart began to soften and I was able to speak words that had been silenced by brokenness for an entire generation. And now I can stand before you in this age, with a new, transfigured voice. It was only when I dived deep below the surface, entered the silence and faced my fears, that I felt the whales' songs.
“Have you not known? Have you not heard? Has it not been told you from the beginning?”
As I prepared for the sermon this week, today’s readings jumped off the pages and smacked me upside the head!
Have you not known?
Have you not heard?
Has it not been told you from the beginning?
In today’s gospel, Jesus went to the house of his friends. Simon’s mother-in-law was sick. And I think we can safely assume she was gravely ill since we are told the friends inform Jesus at once about her condition. Jesus took the sick woman’s hand and lifted her up. She was healed (and here’s the part that seems a little strange…..)
She began to serve them.
Serve them? What? Sure…they were probably hungry and tired? Did she rustle up a casserole dish full of chicken enchiladas? Did she pop open a few beers and fill the blender with margaritas? The woman had been sick, for crying out loud. And the first thing she does after being miraculously healed it to serve them?
I’m sure most of you know I am not a scholar of ancient languages. In fact, while I’m able to read and learn most anything, scholarly study is not my strong suit. But I dug a little deeper into this idea that Simon’s mother-in-law felt compelled to serve Jesus and his friends after having been sick in bed.
Here’s where I got smacked in the head. In the original Greek, the word translated to “serve” is diakonia. (dee-ak-on-ee-ah). This word – diakonia – can be translated to mean “to serve tables” – like a waiter or waitress – and it also interpreted to mean “the call to serve the poor and oppressed.”
And what does diakonia sound like? Sure enough, diakonia is the root of our words diaconate and deacon.
So here I am this week, reading the story of someone who was gravely ill – near death perhaps – being healed and deciding the first thing they should do is to serve. She was called to serve. She was called to serve the poor and oppressed.
Gee. Now who does that sounds like? Who could it be? It sounds so familiar.
That’s because it sounds like me.
Have I not known?
Have I not heard?
In July 2012, I was diagnosed with stage 4 non-hodgkins lymphoma. I was in the hospital for 3 months receiving intense chemotherapy. I was very sick! As many of you who visited me can attest, I was near death.
And then I was lifted up. I recovered and I was healed. And although I can’t claim quick recovery, I can say that I am here to serve. Diakonia. I am going to be a deacon and serve the poor, the oppressed and anyone who needs serving.
And to play the metaphor out completely, I have worked as a waiter and am a licensed alcohol server in the state of New Mexico.
But this sermon isn’t about me. I only used my own experience as an example of what is possible through the power of God….the power of Jesus….working among us….and working THROUGH us….and working IN us!
Today we heard the words of the prophet Isaiah. He reminded us that those who wait for the Lord will renew their strength, they will mount up with wings like eagles, they will run and not be weary, they will walk and not faint.
Let’s look closely at those who have their strength renewed. Our translation says “those who wait for the Lord.” Another translation I found says “those who wait on the Lord.”
And now I want to throw out the study of ancient languages and think about common vernacular American English usage of the words “wait “ and “serve.” They can mean the same thing – to wait on a table….to serve a table.
Diakonia. To serve. To serve the poor and the oppressed OR to serve tables….to wait on tables.
So waiting ON the Lord can mean serving the Lord. And waiting FOR the Lord can mean serving FOR the Lord.
It’s a circle…..see?
We are called to serve. Jesus calls us to serve. We are called to serve Jesus and to serve FOR Jesus. And frankly, those two points are splitting hairs because our favorite Bibles passage of Matthew 25 clearly tells us that it doesn’t matter who we serve because serving everyone is serving Jesus.
Jesus isn’t here with us today in human. We are the hands and feet and heart of Jesus in this world. So we serve one another. We serve one another for Jesus. We serve one another with the knowledge that in serving someone else, we are serving Jesus.
And the beautiful part of all that service is that eventually you are on the receiving end of that wonderful circle of service. Being a part of a living, caring, serving spiritual community lets you serve and be served.
When I was sick, Jesus did not personally come to my bed and take my hand and lift me up and heal me. But Jesus DID appear in the form of
Every person who came and visited me in my room.
Every person who sent a card, a phone call, a text, an e-mail, a PRAYER.
Every nurse who took my vitals every single hour
Every doctor who planned my treatment and administered the drugs
Every technician who read my test results and determined what was wrong with me.
Every cafeteria worker who could find something I could tolerate to eat.
So you, as part of this amazing faith community are asked to serve and when the time comes, you will be served as well.
What is the illness that keeps you in bed? From what do you need to be lifted? Maybe you are physically ill and praying for healing. Maybe you have an addiction. Perhaps you are lonely or afraid of the future. Perhaps you need help with a family member. Maybe you are simply lost and don’t know where to turn.
We, as Christians, are called to diakonia. We are called to serve one another.
And the beauty of that service in which Jesus has asked us to participate is this: we can help one another renew our strength, mount up with wings as eagles, run and not be weary, walk and not faint.
And that circle of service will continue. When you are able to get out of bed, you’ll start serving. It usually doesn’t all happen as quickly as the miracle of Simon’s mother-in-law being healed and immediately serving dinner. But it will happen. It must happen because we are called to serve. We are called to diakonia.
Have we not known?
Have we not heard?
Well…..now we have.