“Give us grace, O God, to answer readily the call of our Savior Jesus Christ.”
As I thought about preaching at this Annual Meeting, one of the things I did was to read through annual reports for the past several years, just to re-live the journey we’ve been on together so far. I’m halfway through my 6th year as your Rector. It’s hard to believe I’m already entering into a longer tenure than many priests experience these days (in the Episcopal Church, 5 years is the average length of time a priest stays at a parish.) It strikes me in one sense how much progress we’ve made together as a community, and in another sense how many of the issues we all saw a need to address back in 2014 are still posing some challenges for us.
Year by year, we’ve answered the call of our Savior by widening our circle of influence and our visibility in our geographical parish and the downtown. When the members of our parish who are working with our consultant from Partners for Sacred Places began phoning community leaders, it was a real delight to see how many of them were now well aware of us and how readily they agreed to serve on our Advisory Committee. I remember well going to my first Champaign Center Partnership gathering shortly after I arrived and finding that some of the same individuals who in 2019 said an immediate yes to collaborating with Emmanuel, back then could not quite place what and where Emmanuel even was. We’ve made real progress. Good job, all of you.
We begin today reading Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians. In green seasons, which don’t have the focused themes of Lent and Easter, or Advent and Christmas, the Church invites us to read straight through some of the letters in the New Testament. So in green season, the second lesson will always find us going through a letter in order. This is intended as a way of keeping before us that the Bible isn’t little snippets for worship services – it’s a wide and rich book that we need to imbibe deeply on its own terms.
Standing here together at the start of 1 Corinthians is sort of like standing in front of the Alps - chapter 1, verse 1. We’ll be reading along from the early chapters of this letter until Lent begins on Ash Wednesday, except for February 2nd which happens to be the feast of the Presentation, Emmanuel’s Name Day. It’s Paul’s second longest letter, and perhaps his most thorough in showing how Christian truths address the kind of issues and struggles that every church in the world seems to get itself into now and again.
Shortly before Christmas, I read an article by Fr. Ben Maddison, an Episcopal priest in NJ, that drew on the song “Mary did you know.” He and his wife are foster parents, and he wrote about that experience through the lens of the song. I expect many of you have heard it – it’s a series of questions addressed to the Blessed Virgin, wondering how aware she was, ahead of time, of all that her Son would go through. It begins,
Mary did you know that your baby boy would one day walk on water?
Mary did you know that your baby boy would save our sons and daughters?
Did you know that your baby boy has come to make you new?
This child that you've delivered, will soon deliver you. Mary did you know?
Fr. Ben starts out by speaking from his own perspective about how little, really, he and his wife and all parents know ahead of time: They brought the baby to our doorstep. Five days old. Directly from the hospital. One outfit. Four pre-made bottles. A handful of diapers. A package of wipes. And a packet of papers that offered no definitive judgment on the proper pronunciation of her name….
“And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.”
In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Merry Christmas! Today is the twelfth day of Christmas, so we get to say that one more time. The Son of God has been born into the world as a human being and we’ve been rejoicing ever since the day of his birth. Today we find him, the child born king of the Jews, in the house where the wise men from the east behold, for the first time, the manifestation of the Son of God to the peoples of the earth. If Christmas proclaims that there was never an event as new as the Incarnation of our Lord, then tomorrow, the Feast of the Epiphany, will proclaim how this unprecedented event will work itself out in the lives of those who encounter it.
Our Gospel today concludes with the wise men returning to their country by another road. In the most immediate sense, this is in direct response to a message from an angel warning them to get out of town without checking back in with King Herod, as they had originally planned to do. But the reality is that they could not have possibly returned home the same way as they came, for they are no longer the same people. Had they not knelt before the King and Savior of the world? The one who is very God of very God and yet fully human, born of the flesh of the Blessed Virgin Mary? Such an encounter makes for an irrevocable change and an overwhelming joy. Once the wise men enter the house, they are not the same people that they were. And after they leave the house, there are no steps to be re-traced and even their journey home will be unfamiliar. It is certainly not the journey that they had expected. They have witnessed the Epiphany, the manifestation of the Son of God to the world. Before that, human life was just like it is right now at the beginning of a new decade and had always been. We have always been the people that we were. And none of our hopes for innovation and progress can ever quite shake that knowledge from us. Nothing can save us that is possible, the poet W.H. Auden said, for We who must die demand a miracle.