Sermon preached by the Reverend Nicholas Lang
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The First Sunday after Epiphany – January 9, 2011
I’m sure you have heard about Ted Williams, the homeless man who is the subject of viral video that has captivated the internet at large. Both he and his mother were interviewed on national TV. Williams’ story became a sensation with the original YouTube clip reaching more than 4 million in 24 hours.
He was discovered on the side of the road, using his incredible radio announcer voice to collect money and what has been dubbed his “golden voice” has taken him from living in bushes along the roadside to fame and the prospect of much good fortune.
And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Beloved in whom I am well pleased.”
What does the voice of God sound like? Religious leaders have used it as the voice of judgment and condemnation. I would not be surprised if some religious personality attributed the tragic shootings in Arizona yesterday to be the voice of God sending evil America a message. It’s been done before.
Some folks hear God’s voice as an angry, intimidating voice. Our expectation in the midst of any kind of national disaster is that God’s voice would be full of muscle and omnipotence. To be a human is to be weak, limited, and vulnerable. But God is to have power, a thunderous voice, that exudes complete, unlimited power.
But that’s not the voice of God we hear about in the scripture today. The Prophet Isaiah says that God will send a servant to act on our behalf in a loving and decisive way. This God—who comes in the Messiah Jesus—has a gentle and comforting voice. This God’s voice is so soft and calming that it will not “quench a dimly burning wick,” or break a “bruised reed.” The servant God sends us will act in a delicate and nonviolent way.
This is what God is really like, a God unlike the false one that some define God to be. Today we find the Holy One of God appearing at the River Jordan to be baptized and his presence there evokes God’s voice from heaven: “This is my Beloved in whom I am well pleased.”
On Thursday night, we witnessed the church’s affirmation of the call of another servant. Like every call, I believe that it is the fulfillment of a dream that, in the language of sociologist Daniel Levinson, begins with a vague sense of what it means to live in the world with meaning—“an imagined possibility that generates a sense of vitality and purpose.” Jesus, at his Baptism, acted on his dream—the dream of God—that he would be the Messianic power that would change the world.
And Adam, too, like each of us, acted on the dream, a dream that would bring him to the Episcopal Church where he would be raised up as priest—a servant-leader whose voice will be an instrument by which he will minister to those who are the bruised reeds and those who are easily broken through the powerful and oppressive voices of the world.
Bruised reeds – the dimly burning wick – prisoners in dungeons – those who sit in darkness – all images that suggest those who struggle with deeply unsettling life situations, those whose hearts ache for acceptance and affirmation of their inherent goodness and value, those who are searching for a place where they will be welcomed as they are and where they will hear the good news of hope, restoration, and reconciliation.
At the reception following Adam’s Ordination service, I was in conversation with some of you who remarked on how deeply moving was the entire liturgy, but in particular that sacred time when the Holy Spirit was invoked, when we prayed in silence, and the bishop and presbyters laid their hands on Adam, the congregation raising their arms in solidarity with him and with one another.
Some people had difficulty holding back tears, so profoundly moving was this experience. I’ve heard this reaction again and again, both from people who share stories of their first visits to St. Paul’s and those who have been coming for years. The impact of our radical welcome, our worship, our sacred music, our message often results in tears; tears which are for me a metaphor of the waters of baptism: cleaning, healing, refreshing, restorative.
Do you remember where Jesus headed soon after his baptism in the Jordan? He went to the desert. There is an ancient form of Christianity embedded in what is known as the “desert tradition.” It’s really quite an old perspective but I would imagine we moderns would find it peculiar, though surprisingly refreshing and liberating—maybe one of the new things that Isaiah tells us God wants to show us.
We think of the desert as a dry, desolate, barren place, a place where nothing grows and where our existence is threatened. But it is also a place chosen by God as the focus of God’s revelation. The desert in the ancient tradition of our holy ancestors is one of spirit, a place of silence, waiting, and temptation. It is also a place of “epiphany,” of revelation and transformation—being made new, as in our baptism.
The desert tradition claims the power of tears; tears as agents of resurrection and transformation. It refers to this phenomenon about which so many of you have spoken as “the gift of tears.” In his book, Soul Making, Alan Jones, says that “tears can raise the dead….they are radical and life-bearing…and their fruit is always joy…for life and for the sake of the restructuring of our identity, for the re-ordering of our self-understanding…and usher in a radical transformation,” helping us to clarify choices, even contributing to the building of the kingdom of God.
The kind of tears about which we spoke on Thursday night—about which others have shared over the years—are tears of joy and healing, a gift which facilitates our reclaiming the dream of God for us—a dream that can be summed up in another passage from the Prophet Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
Adam, you have been called to lead us in pursuing the dream, your dream as priest, our dream as a community, God’s dream for us. Shortly, you will ask us to renew promises we made to embark on a life long journey of discerning that dream; to break holy bread together and pray for the needs of others; to serve Christ in all persons, to work for peace and justice, and to honor the differences of every human.
Author Robert Farrar Capon maintains that the Church of today is bereft of the “Gospel-centered” astonishment of the early church—the passion for the Great Commission that was in their DNA. He says that we are so busy balancing budgets and maintaining that we have lost our capacity for that passion. We have lost the Dream of pronouncing unlimited forgiveness…we have suppressed any fascination for the strangeness that accompanies the proclamation of a “strange Gospel” by a “strange God” through the strangest of institutions.
I don’t think he would find that kind of church here, but we must never take for granted or underestimate how important what we do here is, how huge the impact it has on people’s lives, the power it has to transform and even evoke the gift of tears.
Even so, maybe what we all need every so often is a good dunking like Jesus received and to breathe in heartily the fresh air of the Spirit hovering over.
Adam, the dream awaits us all. Take us to the blessed waters and lead us with your voice. And, as you continue on in your priesthood, remember God’s promise to take you by the hand and keep you—that with all of us, you may be a light to the nations, open the eyes of the blind, and bring out from their prisons all those who sit in darkness.