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I stand before you very near the piece of ground that Lord Archbishop of Oystermouth, Rowan Williams, just a week ago. And from this place he preached, well, maybe two of the most extraordinary sermons ever preached at Epiphany. The only two greater, were possibility, the two he preached the last time he was at Epiphany. And so, I stand here humbly before you, putting into your mind the reality that you will not hear a sermon like you heard last week, and there is nothing I can do about it, even if I were to brush up my eyebrows.
Today is a different kind of sermon, it is a sermon where I share with you the guiding principles that we are going to stand by, honor, and fight for at Epiphany Parish. And I bring them forth, front and center, on this day, in-gathering Sunday, which means it is the day that we step forward and say: “What we do here matters, who we are matters, and it matters to the world.”
Thursday morning, early, I was on the telephone with my prayer partners from around the country who I’ve been meeting with since 2003. They know me, and I know them; and so, I shared with them that I was feeling a little bit depleted. Tired. Fuzzy in my vision for this place. I shared with them that I feel like we are a lizard that is shedding its skin. There’s a change going on in this place that is both a renewal and a dying all at the same time.
I’ve been here into my 11th year now. And I have great hopes for Epiphany Parish. And I believe the Holy Spirit is moving in this place in a remarkable way. And I believe that we are the right church, with the right people, at the right time in a city that is desperately seeking to understand itself, particularly in the face of shifting human identity. This city is the center of artificial intelligence and machine learning; and as such, the center of maybe the most significant change that has ever happened in the history of humankind.
Who we are? How we are in the world? What is our role? What is our identity? These are questions up for discussion like never before, and Christianity has a response in the name of Jesus.
I have here on my left the icon of St. George slaying the serpent, the dragon; because as I was talking to my brothers over the phone my eyes cast around the richly adorned room I call my office…it is a holy space for me; and my eyes fell upon St. George the warrior knight of Jerusalem and England, two of my favorite pilgrimage places.
And so, I thought, maybe my heart would be renewed by the extraordinary power of this icon. So, I asked Diane to reserve the sanctuary for me, and I came in here, lit a candle, and I sat right up there on the ground in front of the Presider’s chair. I put St. George before me, and I sat in prayer.
As I looked upon this icon, I saw three extraordinary things: I saw the serpent, you see it here, twisted, lying on the ground, prone; the dragon with the spear of St. George in its mouth…still as though dead. And I saw above it the horse of St. George. In the flicker of the candlelight, even though it was daytime, the light danced, and I swear to you, I saw the horse run; moving up and down, neck outstretched and then tucked back in, legs churning. The horse charging over the serpent, galloping, alive, the white stallion of the church. And on top sat St. George.
But here is the crazy thing: as his arm was going up and down spearing the dragon over and over again, his face changed; and as it changed, I could see there in the icon your face and your face and your face– and all the faces of this parish sitting astride the galloping white horse that is the church stamping across the evil, inanimate dragon.
And I said to myself, “I am going to hide behind the power of St. George this Sunday. I’m going to hold up this icon of Christian victory on this Sunday we call in-gathering Sunday; because we are, and I think we don’t give ourselves enough credit for it, gallant knights set here to save the world.” And the world is in desperate need of what we have to offer, uniquely, through the church.
Here is what I believe the serpent is: I believe the serpent is isolation; I believe the serpent is the virtual world; I believe the serpent is the idolatry of sports and work and money; I believe the serpent is that which draws us out of relationship with one another, but more so, and more importantly, the serpent is that which causes us to question the reality of God in the person of Jesus.
Let me tell you story to help us understand what I just said. I was at All Saints’ Beverly Hills and a woman came to me who had suffered significant trauma as a young woman. She had of course been in therapy, and was still in therapy, and she was well accustomed to talking about her trauma. It was familiar to her. And yet, she could not get over it. She could not move beyond it. She had read the books, she had talked to the specialist, she had watched the videos, she had done all the things that the world of psychology and psychiatry could lead her into; and yet, she could not shake the dragon, she could not shake the isolation; she could not shake the pain.
She had trauma. We all have trauma; some significant, some less significant, but it is part of what it means to be human. She said, “Can you help me?” Friends, I’m no healer. I’m certainly no psychologist, but the one thing that I could give her that no one else had been able to give her was the name of Jesus. And so, I asked: “Will you join me over a period of time, in walking back into that place of trauma? We’ll do it together, and we’ll do it in prayer. And when we get to that place,” I said, “I’d be there with you.” Because here is what I know; n a world where God gave humanity freedom, people will hurt people. There will be hateful and abusive and intolerable things; mean and selfish and sinful things…and God will be there, as witness…weeping. Jesus wept.
God is always with us in our tears and in our pain and in our trauma. God is there, and because God is there, there is something to touch, to move us beyond that place of extraordinary pain to a field of redemption.
And so, over the weeks, and over the months she and I gathered, and we went there in prayer. And we went there over and over again, and in the vision of her heart she reentered that place, and with the eyes of her soul she looked and searched and then, like a revelation, like a dancing white stallion upon the dragon of hate and pain and indeed evil, she saw Jesus. She saw Jesus in a light in a corner of that room that she had not seen. And in that light, she recalled a moment, even in the midst of the horror, of a lightness in her being. She touched it; and in that moment and forever more, she became bigger than the pain that had bound her.
Did that make the trauma go away? No, it did not. Did that make the memory go away? No, it did not. But now every time the image floated through her mind, she was able to lay her hands upon that light, the light that had been there that she had not seen, that she now sees, the light of Jesus…And she was, and is, lifted up as her soul is expanded beyond the pain of her body through the lightness of Jesus.
Rowan Williams wrote, in The Lions World, “There is a tradition in the church where we believe that the body resides within the soul, and not the other way around. And when we come into a sacred place such as a church, we know that it is bigger on the inside than it is on the outside.”
The woman was healed when she found out how to access that part of her being, her soul, that was bigger than the pain her body experienced. And she found that through the name of Jesus.
What we do here, what each one of you does here, is you sit on the white horse of Christianity; and you take that spear, and you thrust it through the pain, and the isolation, and the anger, and the division, and the sadness, and indeed, the evil of this world and you do so through the power unleashed by the name of Jesus.
What we offer here at Epiphany, and why we are different than any other institution you support is that we offer the most powerful, life-changing force that is ever existed in the name of Jesus.
And so, when you are at work and you do not know what to do call on the name of Jesus. When you are in a confrontation, or a place of pain, call on the name of Jesus. When you’re trying to figure out what to do with your kids, or maybe even if you should have kids, or how you help your parents moved into retirement, or whatever that place of pain or confusion or uncertainty is call upon the name of Jesus.
Because it is by the name of Jesus that you transcend the smallness of your body into the bigness of your soul…and it is your soul that connects with the love of God. And when you’re connected to God you matter, and you make a difference, and your purpose has impact in the world. And it is for that reason that at this church we call out the name of Jesus.
St. George is our model, and we are going to set him up here between now and Advent. And when you see him, I want you to ask the questions: “Am I sitting on the white stallion? Do I see my face I see in his face? What is that serpent I am called to trod upon? And how does that make a difference in my life, and in the life of the work that God has given me to do, and in the lives of the people that God has put me in the midst of?”
St. George is the image that I want us to put in our mind as we come forward today making our pledge to this church. And as you see yourself on that horse, and I know you will….give thanks to God in the name of Jesus.