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Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany

Feb 24, 2019

Sitting down to study the lessons Wednesday morning as I watched the snow falling, I was struck that they all seem to focus on the wisdom that derives from the love of God. Now mind you, I was at the same time wondering aloud if there is a recipe for groundhog stew (an imperfect sermon illustration).

When we observe Epiphany as a season of Light, we focus on how to live with the light of Christ as our guide. In the scriptures, we can read many stories of people who are intelligent, who are respectable, or successful, and at the same time, they are disconnected from God. Our lessons are reflect the deep wisdom that develops from a relationship with God. Wisdom is a unique quality. Unlike knowledge, wisdom does not rely on accumulation of facts and making associations between them. Unlike social respectability, wisdom does not focus on building a good reputation or keeping up appearances. Success may or may not reflect one’s wisdom. One can be a successful thief (as Zacchaeus was in his tax collecting), or one can be a successful disciple (as Mary of Bethany was to the dismay of her sister) – I suspect that we might assign the quality of wisdom to Mary and not to Zacchaeus before his conversion. Wisdom is a special quality. Wisdom conveys power to do the work of discernment, to figure out what we should do as friends and lovers of God.

In the scripture, wisdom is the tangible fruit of connection with the divine mind of God, and the path to that connection is a life of spiritual practice. Spiritual practice is very different from indoctrination, which teaches a person to accept a set of beliefs without any critical examination of them. Spiritual practice is a regular, cumulative process through which a person encounters God and experiences a personal transformation. Traditionally, spiritual practice has focused on regular experiences of prayer, self-denial, and generosity, which are the exercises that build a resilient soul.

Today’s lessons give us a picture of what it is to pursue the path of discipleship, seeking wisdom. Joseph is the eleventh son of Jacob, borne by his favorite wife Rachel, (let’s talk about biblical marriage another day, shall we?). His brothers are jealous because he is his father’s favorite. Joseph has a special relationship to God, and he can interpret dreams. In a shocking story of sibling treachery, they sell him as a slave to Midianite traders. In Egypt, Joseph rises within the ranks of the Pharaoh, becoming the vizier, or Pharaoh’s closest adviser. Today we hear the short passage in which Joseph articulates his forgiveness of his brothers’ unforgivable action. This is not his immediate response when he encounters his brothers, who have traveled to Egypt to obtain food during a famine. The process toward this forgiveness takes over 15 years and many chapters of Genesis. As a prayerful, thoughtful man, Joseph comes to see how God has worked good through a terrible experience, and chooses to forgive and reconcile with his family. It is wisdom borne of faith that enables Joseph to rekindle his love and do this.

Psalm 37 is a collection of wisdom sayings in a Hebrew alphabet acrostic. The sayings point to the abiding presence and comfort of the Almighty for those who faithfully pursue a relationship, especially in difficult and oppressive circumstances. The function of the promises is to locate God with those who “do good” (vv 3, 27), who live simply (v 16), who practice generosity (vv 21, 26), and who both proclaim and embody God’s will for justice (vv 30-31). These practices are their own reward, for they embody our connection to God and conformity to the ways of God. Furthermore, they constitute life as God intends life to be, because they have the potential to shape the world in the directions that God intends, including the elimination of poverty and hunger.

Paul writes to the fractious Christian community in Corinth, reminding them that the teaching about the resurrection of Jesus Christ commends to them a new way of living. He does not deny the reality of the physical nature of human life, and at the same time reiterates his teaching that the risen life will be very different. Today’s passage follows close after the segment often reserved for weddings: love is patient and kind. But Paul is not a romantic. He is a tough-minded realist, and for him, a life lived in honor of the tremendous love of God and the sacrifice of Jesus demands spiritual transformation. We have inherited the blessing of the reign of God. The resurrection is a reality in present time, and we need to begin living it now.

While the passage from Luke’s gospel is a beautiful description of how disciples live as if we are part of the Reign of God. When we hear this as a command, it is a hard teaching. How would that change if we can hear it as an invitation to a new way of being? Jesus invites his followers to adopt the spiritual disciplines of love, generosity, and selflessness as tangible signs that we are the people of God on earth, even when our context is one of conflict and oppression. The irenic response to injustice is neither simplistic nor passive: it is instead the kindness of wishing grace upon another person, who is as imperfect as we are. In fact, the word for “kind” (chrestos) is related to the word for grace (charis). How can one manage to cultivate these responses in a world that seems to be so fallen, so unjust, so confrontational? Only through a continual striving for connection to the God of Love, through a spiritual practice that infuses us with grace.

What is it to be wise because we have experienced the love of God?
To be wise is to be kind.
To be wise is to be open to others.
To be wise is to go out of our way to show love to others.

[The following is an excerpt from a letter written by John Knowles to the Cathedral.]

I am very sorry that I cannot be there to do this myself, but I do hope someone will convey this note to you. My name is John. I was once homeless. I am an ex-con and a recovering addict.
I never had the benefit of a true loving, caring family, which I believe made it hard for me to trust in others or that others could truly love or care about me, solely because they are doing God’s work and are good honest loving people who care for others.

That is, until I entered St. Stephen’s last September searching for odds jobs so that I might earn honest money to feed myself. That is when I had the opportunity to meet [Amy Welin and Cindy Harbert], and I began to question my belief that there aren’t any honest, caring people out there. . . . They treated me as their equal, and not a homeless bum . . .

I kept returning to St. Stephen’s Episcopal Cathedral, to perform a variety of work . . . with Jim Elliott and Michael Frascella. . . . I began to meet all sorts of people [from the cathedral], who greeted me with open arms filled with love, honesty and caring compassion – never not once did I feel judged or looked down at. Attending church I was in amazement at how during the peace people who just met me greeted me and came from all over the church to wish me peace and shake my hand . . .

I was invited to Christmas dinner . . . and also to a get-together. I must say I was taken aback. . . .

I have never felt so loved and cared about in my life before. This is a direct result in God working through all of you. . . . I thank you with all my heart. I feel you all saved my life. You are all living God’s word. . . . For those od you who doubt you are doing enough, pray for wisdom, direction and knowledge in serving God. It is obvious that God hears you . . . Keep praying, keep trusting, keep the faith. I know everyone [sic] of you saved me. . . You have ignited a flame in me that no one could extinguish. I thank all of you. Let us all remember to seek his Kingdom and righteousness, and all things will be added unto us.

With sincere love and gratitude, John Knowles.

What is it to be wise because we have experienced the love of God?
To be wise is to be kind.
To be wise is to be open to others.
To be wise is to go out of our way to show love to others.

This sermon was preached by the Rev. Dr. Amy Welin at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Cathedral on February 22, 2019, for the Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany. The lessons for the day, which can be found at this link, are:

  • Genesis 45:3-11, 15
  • Psalm 37:1-12, 41-42
  • 1 Corinthians 15:35-38,42-50
  • Luke 6:27-38

J. Clinton McGann. Commentary on Psalm 37. Available at this link.

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