The Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you… so that you will be a blessing.”
This command of God in Genesis 12, our first reading, marks the moment in long-ago history when God starts to create a family for himself, this great nation of children of Abraham. In our second reading from Romans, Paul, over 1000 years later, is still reflecting on that moment -- how did Abraham get access to God’s family? Was it having a special ethnic heritage, or did his behavior reach some threshold that entitled him to be selected? No. It was God’s choice, pure and simple, and Abraham’s yes to that choice, pure and simple.
In the Gospel today, Jesus expands on the same principle as he speaks with Nicodemus: The image Jesus uses is that God offers people who have been born in the ordinary way a second, different kind of birth, a birth into God’s kingdom (Jesus doesn’t employ the idea of family much). This kingdom does not depend on your heritage, where you come from, what religion your parents belong to, or whether you are a kind or respectable person. None of that has any effect. The only way to even perceive God’s Kingdom, Jesus says, much less be born into it, is by responding to God in trust. All three readings are getting at the same thing: God makes an offer of incorporation, and if we take God up on it, God will do what he promises.
“Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked, and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves.”
In some situations, it makes sense to cover up embarrassing parts of your life. The cocktail party conversation that begins with a casual “how are you” is probably not the moment to talk about the trouble you’re having making your mortgage payments. It’s the moment for “oh, fine, thanks.” When the guy comes to fix the water heater, there’s no point in telling him the anguish of dealing with your mother’s addiction to painkillers. Just show him the stairs to the basement and leave it be.
But there are other situations where covering up something painful or embarrassing is absolutely the wrong thing to do. It defeats the purpose, for example, if you go to the doctor and say “oh, fine, thanks” when in fact you’ve been having uncontrollable tremors in your left leg or steadily worsening blind spots in your right eye. Getting out of your doctor’s office having managed to deceive her or yourself about your problems is not the goal. The goal is to reveal your problems so that they can get healed.
In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The ashes that will mark our foreheads today are to be for us “a sign of our mortality and penitence.” The season of Lent is therefore a season for the whole person, body and soul: the mortality of the one and the penitence of the other. And yet these twin themes are signified together by the single sign of ashes, imposed upon the forehead of a single individual. Thus they are bound together, inextricably, just as body and soul are bound together. True penitence will never stray far from our acceptance of death, nor will death require of us anything less than a final act of penitence before the mercy of God. Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return -- Ash Wednesday reminds us that mortality is the form that penitence takes; that the Christian life of penitence is the practice of death.
But this annual reminder of our mortality confronts us at the level of our most basic drive for self-preservation, which by itself is all well and good. Humans instinctively protect the lives that God has given us from danger and harm, and so the fear of death is one of the major guiding principles of human life. But the Bible describes the fear of death as something that enslaves us; something that has a power of its own that binds us.  For human beings, the fear of death is therefore never just a matter of our natural sense of caution and safety. Because human mortality is the consequence of sin, death forever stands as the irrefutable evidence of our condition. And yet death is the one thing that sin cannot admit or accept. Sin is fundamentally a kind of self-deception, a futile attempt to claim life for ourselves apart from God and neighbor. It represents a rebellion against the God who is the creator and preserver of life itself, and thus it inevitably leads to death, for anything that is alienated from the life of God is dead by definition.
When Mark and I have the chance to go to New York City, one of the things we try to get on the agenda is to visit the Frick Collection on the upper East Side. The Frick is a former private mansion, and it houses artworks that the 19th century steel magnate Henry Clay Frick acquired over his life. Though there’s been some remodeling, the rooms still resemble the way they looked when Frick lived there. And in his living room, across from the fireplace, over a rug that picks up its colors to make it stand out even more dramatically, hangs one of the most important works in the collection: Giovanni Bellini’s “St. Francis in Ecstasy.”
Bellini puts Francis in an outdoor scene, standing beside a cliff which contains a small shelter; there are some animals and a town in the background, but the thing that draws your attention is Francis himself. He’s gazing awestruck off to the left, outside the frame, so we can’t actually see what he’s looking at. But whatever it may be, it is bathing both him and the landscape behind him in indescribable light.
This glow reflects off the rocks, and a laurel tree nearby is not only sparkling, but also inclined, as if the light source from outside the frame is radiating with such force that it’s become a physical weight, bending this tree over partway. St. Francis is looking right at whatever that invisible force outside the frame is, and his arms have stretched out at his sides in a mixture of surrender and awe. And you can just see the prints of the stigmata, the wounds of Jesus, beginning to form in Francis’ palms. Bellini’s painting, like many passages in Scripture, give amazing testimony to what the presence of God can do when it is manifest to a human being.
In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
There’s a troop of rather insolent squirrels that lives right outside our house that I have named the Squirrel Punks. Because these aren’t your ordinary squirrels. They have managed to enlarge what was once a small hole in our trash bin to just their size so that they can crawl in and help themselves to all the leftovers. Which means that when you open the trash bin unawares, you often happen upon the squirrel party of the century. And then of course they have the nerve to perch themselves directly in front of our front porch windows, as if to taunt us. Like I said, squirrel punks.
Of course, I know that there is nothing at all intentional about their behavior, let alone malicious. Because I know that at the end of the day, they’re just squirrels; and squirrels are incapable of being punks. Squirrels, like the rest of the animal kingdom, live by the instinct. Squirrels don’t have to try to act like squirrels -- you could say that being a squirrel just “comes naturally” to them. So despite my suspicions, the squirrel punks are just being squirrels.
When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.
You can always count on St. Paul to go for the rhetorical flourish. Despite all those protestations we just heard about how un-lofty and artless his words are, he has such an instinct for verbal drama. I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. Nothing, whatsoever, except Jesus Christ and him crucified. As we continue reading along in 1st Corinthians, Paul is really talking here about his initial approach to the residents of Corinth, but reading that sentence in chapter 2 could make you think this is either going to be a very short letter, or a very repetitive one. After all, he claims he’s only got one topic.
When you get to know this letter, you discover that it has far more than one topic. As I said 2 weeks ago, we are in early stages in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians at this point, though we’ll be reading nearly the whole thing as part of our Lenten program, and you’ll see that in fact it’s 16 chapters long and covers all sorts of topics, some of them quite pragmatic. Paul writes about conflict within a parish. He writes about the importance of collaborative servant leadership. There’s a section on lawsuits and a section on marriage. There’s some complex stuff dealing with the religious pluralism in Corinth.
Today, February 2 is the Feast of the Presentation, Emmanuel’s Feast of Title. This is one of only three feasts, which if they occur on a Sunday, can replace the lessons of that particular day. So, we probably won’t celebrate this occasion on a Sunday morning again for seven more years. And yet we see today’s gospel story every time we come into this worship space.
A word about feasts of title, for many churches the choice of feast day is easy, St. Matthews in Bloomington is on September 21st, the day throughout the world that the gospel writer, and tax collector, Matthew is remembered. Christ the King in Normal celebrates on the last Sunday of Pentecost, which fittingly enough is also known as Christ the King Sunday. Emmanuel, meaning “God with Us”, could actually have any day of the year as its feast because God is always with us. The Presentation was chosen as our name day, I think, because today’s gospel tells of the first time that Jesus is taken out of his own private setting, his home, his birthplace and shown to the world. God has come into the world for everyone. The Presentation is the story depicted in the stained glass window behind the high altar here. I do not know which came first, selecting the name day, or having the window. Regardless, Feb. 2 is the traditional day for Emmanuel Champaign’s Feast of Title.
“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….