This is the sermon Bishop Scott Mayer preached at All Saints’, Fort Worth, on Sunday, January 12, 2020, the First Sunday after the Epiphany – the Feast of the Baptism of Jesus Christ.
Listen to the podcast of the sermon and/or read the text below.
All Saints Fort Worth 2020 1 Epiphany – Year A January 12
Today in the life of the Church we are celebrating the First Sunday after the Epiphany: the Baptism of our Lord. The word “epiphany” means “manifest,” “show forth,” “reveal,” “make known.” Light is a key theme for the Season of Epiphany, as light makes things known, reveals things, uncovers things. Light shines in the darkness.
In today’s reading from Isaiah, the Lord says to the chosen people of God: “… I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness.”
And the prophet Isaiah will say to the people: “Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the Lord will arise upon you, and his glory will appear over you. Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.”
Light is a key theme for this season. Author and theologian Herbert O’Driscoll goes so far as to say: “Light is the predominant symbol in the expression of the Christian faith. The New Testament is full of it, beginning with the gospels themselves. Light blazes in the heavens at our Lord’s birth, and emanates from him at his transfiguration. Shining figures appear at his ascension. He himself says that he is the Light, that he has come that humanity may have light.”
Jesus himself says to his followers: “You are the light of the world.” None other than George Herbert Walker Bush – an American president – called us to be like “a thousand points of light.” He imagined aloud the United States as a nation of communities, “a brilliant diversity spread like stars, like a thousand points of light in a broad and peaceful sky.”
I don’t know what inspired President Bush to use this image, but when I hear it, I think of the 20th century Trappist Monk, Thomas Merton. By way of background, Thomas Merton was born in France to American parents, returned to America to study at Columbia, joined the Catholic Church, and in 1941 entered the Trappist Monastery of Gethsemani near Louisville, Kentucky.
Merton wrote more than seventy books, mostly on spirituality and social justice. His work contributed to the rise of spiritual exploration in the sixties and seventies, and his prophetic voice confronting society about war, racial injustice, and religious intolerance was simultaneously praised and criticized.
Later in his life, Merton developed a deep interest in Asian religions, and he became a promoter and participant in the growing interfaith East-West religious dialogue. I want to read a passage which I believe gives us a flavor of Thomas Merton – his perspective of God and humankind. I think you will see why I choose it this morning. He writes:
“At the center of our being is a point of nothingness which is untouched by sin …, a point of pure truth, a point or spark which belongs entirely to God. … It is like a pure diamond, blazing with the invisible light of heaven. It is in everybody, and if we could see it we would see these billions of points of light coming together in the face and blaze of a sun that would make all the darkness and cruelty of life vanish completely.” He goes on to say: “I have no program for this seeing. It is only a given. But the gate of heaven is everywhere.”
Thomas Merton, the mystic, sees the Light in everyone. At the center of our being is a point untouched by sin, a point of pure truth, a point or spark which belongs entirely to God. The Sufi’s call this the Virgin Point – the uncontaminated Virgin Point.
And it is in everybody. To be sure, it is covered with layers and layers of fear and selfishness and guilt and manifestations of sin. As Isaiah says, “darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples.” We are covered in darkness. To be sure, also, God’s love – and God’s love alone – is what can crack that outer shell open and liberate the Light which is in everyone.
Another 20th century theologian – a renowned expert on world religions, Huston Smith – gives us an image of such love, and the power of love. Drawing from creation itself, he uses the fundamental unit of all matter, which we know as the source of nuclear energy – the atom.
He says: “… locked within the atom is the energy of the sun itself. For this energy to be released, however, the atom must be bombarded from without [from the outside]. So, too, locked in every human being is a store of love that partakes of the Divine – the image of God that is within us. And it too can be activated only through bombardment – love’s bombardment.”
Love activates love. Love bombards the outer shell – the tomb – of fear, guilt, and selfishness, and love is released. The Light, which is in everyone, shines.
In a few minutes we will say together the Baptismal Covenant, as we do every time we celebrate the Sacraments of Baptism and Confirmation. I want to say two things about baptism. Certainly, there are more than two things to say about baptism, but today I’ll make two points.
First, at baptism what was true all along is made known, which is the definition of an epiphany. If we remember the story, when Jesus was baptized in the river by John, he came up out of the water and the Voice proclaimed to the multitudes: “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” Before Jesus accomplished one thing in his public ministry the Voice declared, “This is my beloved Son.” What was true already, is made known.
And those words are meant for you and for me. You are God’s daughter. You are God’s son. What was true all along is made known at your baptism. You are a child of God, made in God’s image. It’s important to know, deep in your bones, that you are a child of God. It’s important to know, also, that everyone else is, too.
And that leads to the second point. By our baptism we are grafted into the Body of Christ as living members of the Body, called to a purpose beyond ourselves: to proclaim the power of God’s love, love which has the power to penetrate the darkness, love which activates love, love which liberates the light within all.
The Season of Epiphany begins with the story of the Epiphany from Matthew’s Gospel – the story about the wise men from the East, and their journey as they followed a star to pay homage to the newborn king of the Jews. And of course, there is another king in the story – King Herod.
These are two different types of kings. In the newborn king of the Jews we will see the power of love. In King Herod and the lords of the Roman Empire we will see the love of power. Their systems serve the elite – not even the widows and orphans have a safety net. There is a system of domination with the principalities and powers at the top, and the servants, slaves, and foreigners at the bottom. And as the story goes, King Herod fears the potential loss of such power, and plots to destroy the newborn king of the Jews.
But Jesus is a different kind of king. As we are told in this very story, his own life begins as a refugee. He is raised in the small, insignificant town of Nazareth. And unlike both the religious authorities and political authorities of his day, he eats with sinners and tax collectors. He touches lepers. He heals foreigners. He treats women as persons. He loves people, and people are drawn to him.
And to a large crowd of followers, he says: “Blessed are the poor in spirit Blessed are those who mourn. Blessed are the meek. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. Blessed are the merciful. Blessed are the poor in heart. Blessed are the peacemakers. Blessed are the persecuted.”
Jesus is a different kind of king. This King knows the power of love, and shows it, as he says from the cross, “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.”
No one said, “I’m sorry,” first. No one stepped into a confessional first. No one pulled out their Book of Common Prayer and prayed the General Confession first. This is undeserved forgiveness for all. This is unmerited grace. This is unconditional love.
And this love has the power to bombard the tomb of fear, guilt, and selfishness, and release love; this love has the power to crack open the outer shell of darkness, and liberate the light – to let the Light shine like “a billion points of light coming together in the face and blaze of a sun.”
The prophet Isaiah says, “Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord is risen upon you.” Let’s let our light shine, for we are created in the image of God and marked as Christ’s own forever to proclaim and embody the power of God’s love … in the Name of the Holy Trinity, one God, in Whom we live, and move, and have our being. Amen.