Harrowing Of Hell
January 13, 2019

Living into Epiphany

Preacher: The Rev. Ruth Anne Garcia

To listen, click here.

Good morning Christians, seekers, and friends!

Sometimes we get an idea in our head and that idea takes on a kind of concreteness that limits our ability to imagine all the possibilities that lie before us. And, friends, lest we forget there are a lot.  As we enter fully into this season of Epiphany, we must remember how we got here—it began with a promise given by the angel Gabriel to Mary as he brought her the news that she would give birth to the Messiah. When she asks him how this could possibly be – he answers her, “For nothing will be impossible with God.” And Mary believes him and says, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”

Last week, I  talked about how during the season of Epiphany we are invited to recall and respond to the ways in which Jesus, the Emmanuel – the God who is with us – has and is being revealed to us. And I further asked us to envision how these epiphanies, these sacred moments, might enter into our own daily lives. We are here today because Mary, the mother of Jesus, was willing to believe. We are here because Joseph was willing to believe. We are here today because Elizabeth, and Zechariah, and their son John the Baptist were willing to believe….And we are here because disciples and followers of Jesus – beginning with the first twelve and continuing throughout the centuries since have and are willing to believe. Believe in the possibilities. The willingness to believe, the audacity to believe makes room for the miracles and the revelations that our God who is with us is so graciously always willingly and lovingly giving us. And that is so important to recall  on a day in which we remember not only the baptism of Jesus in the river Jordan but as we welcome four new members into the church. Because each member of the Church and each one of these new members of the Church hold within them something special that could help us expand our understanding of God, that could bring relief and solace to many – that could change the world.

Now the four new members  are rather young. So as adults we can often find ourselves stuck within constructs of thought that keep us from seeing what these members might bring right away. We get into our mode of thinking of about what we will teach them, what we need to tell them about their faith, what we need to “do” so they will get it. But what might we be missing if we don’t consider what new thing they might to have to offer – what new revelation they may have to share with us?

We have to be careful not to allow our conception of our role in the nurturing of new Christians to become a closed circle—like the recycling logo; we don’t necessarily need to teach them to hold the same ideas we do because we have to leave room for God to speak to them directly. In so doing, God may be revealed anew to us as well.

 This last week KUOW did a piece on recycling. Something that we here in Seattle take seriously and have to take seriously unless we want to incur a huge garbage bill. My ears perked up because this is something that I have cared about my whole life—or at least the majority of it—since I was in third or fourth grade. It sounds weird, I know,  but it means enough to me that one of the things that attracted me to Seattle was its compost and recycling program. Anyway, in the third grade, I really got enthused about recycling and made a vow to make recycling a life-long cause because I also noticed at that age that every year seemed to bring a new and different cause that folks got all fired up about and put a lot of energy into until, of course, it was replaced by another cause. Back then, I started gathering discarded aluminum cans from friends and family and riding my bike around town and picking discarded ones. I would then take them  to a local recycling center, which at one point gave me a penny a can. Since then I have continued by committing, when I have lived in places with no residential paper recycling or plastic recycling or composting to organize and cart recyclables off to the places that will take them —  textiles, compost, number five plastics, boxes and paper. While I am far-from-perfect, if you want to know how I feel about reducing, recycling and reusing, you only need to ask my long-suffering husband Jeremy how we wash out and re-use each PCC container, every Ziploc bag and how we could mark many an anniversary with the exact same roll of paper towels we started with the year before. Because, all those years ago I committed to this life-long cause.

But, as the news reported this week, recycling correctly actually takes more work than throwing our used stuff into a blue bin. Doing that is as Karissa Jones, a tour guide at a recycling plant in Woodinville,“wishful recycling” or “… putting something in recycling that doesn’t belong… instead of checking to be sure, [and then] crossing your fingers and hoping it belongs there rather than the trash” causes a lot of problems to the machinery and to the facilities that take it.   Industry-wide, an estimated 20 percent of what we recycle is trash, according to the Washington Refuse & Recycling Association. And because, for example, one soiled plastic container effects the make-up and quality of any plastics that might be made from those items, China and other locales are now refusing to take our recycling.  And, so, for those of us who take pride in our recycling, it may get increasingly difficult to find any place that might actually accept all that we put in our blue bins. So, third grade Ruth Anne is here to tell us that we need to do better at recycling.  

Stepping down off my recycled soap box, for the moment, I got to say that any time we talk about doing better, it can feel a little like being an Old Testament prophet. What words come to mind when we think of Old Testament prophets?   We think of them as finger-pointing thundering heralds of doom and gloom – the kind of folks who always tell us what we are doing wrong… which, depending on the prophet, can be kind of true. But that is not always true. The prophetic voice is also a voice of encouragement – a voice that urges us to change so we can welcome the new. Last week I quoted Maya Angelou who says. “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” Holding her beautiful face in my mind, I hear this as a call to renewal and change. I also hear the prophet in today’s reading  from the Hebrew scriptures this same way. The prophet Isaiah in today’s reading, referred to by theologians as Second Isaiah, sees his role not in terms of telling folks what they need to stop doing but rather what they need to do – because the people that this prophet was talking to were people living in exile– working, saving, raising their children—doing the best that they could but struggling mightily to maintain their values, their faith and their sense of being.  And, so, to these people, Isaiah speaks the “tender, encouraging and empowering words [that they needed to hear as they contemplated their]…uncertain future.”

I think about this a lot today as we recall the baptism of Jesus in the river Jordan, as we renew our baptismal vows and as we welcome four new members into the Church. Perhaps this what our people and the people of the world most need from us right now. Because it is true that we are all called to speak out against what is wrong in the world –  greed, injustice and oppression –  AND we are also called to give our folk reassurance of God’s love, protection and presence. We are called to encourage, uphold and empower one another.

Isaiah tells the children of Israel: “Thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.”

Now, let us be clear Isaiah, like John the Baptist in today’s gospel does not sugar-coat human life here on Planet Earth. He acknowledges that  will be rivers and there will be fires – there will be, as 2018 reminded us hurricanes, floods, and wildfires. And each of us will, indeed, encounter loss, sadness and grief in our life – but it is not a punishment. We can use our voices to remind growing Christians that we are God’s own –we are God’s beloved children. And God is with us always – even in the darkest times.  

A lot of times we talk about growing up as a process of learning and putting away “childish things”—coming to understand the ‘truth’ – which is sometimes equated with something harsh, stark, and hard. But that is not the truth we find in Jesus Christ. That is not the truth that we encounter in the God who says to Jesus at his baptism, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” And this is not the truth we hear from the Old Testament prophet who tells the disheartened Israelites that God proclaims to them, “You are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you.”

Right now, there seems to be a lot of gloom and doom-saying going on in the world. And it can seem very “urbane” to jump on that bandwagon. And while I am not into denying facts, I don’t think it is particularly helpful to be yet another voice proclaiming all that is wrong without proclaiming, too,  that there is hope—that in fact nothing –NOTHING—as the angel Gabriel told Mary will be impossible with God. …. As a Church that is an important part of our prophetic witness. When we  promise as a church to help each member grow into their full stature in Christ. When we promise to seek and serve Christ in all persons. We promise to be willing to see the divine within each of us and help each other to grow into the people that God sees in us—the beloved children of God.

Our Christian belief in Jesus Christ as the Son of God stretches back over 2000 years, but our faith is not about recycled old ideas. In fact, if we insist on recycling all our old ideas and handing them off without being open to the new, we risk corrupting the revelations that God is giving us. We are called to welcome the new because God continues to reveal Godself  in new ways.  These new Christians we welcome today will each bring their own unique and wonderful gifts which we are asked to help nurture. This Epiphany may we be willing to see the brand-new things that God is doing in our midst. Maybe we could even make this a life-long commitment.