I know some of us would like to have better health in the coming year. Who wouldn’t? We might even take those resolutionary steps to be in better health by watching what we eat and moving our bodies more. My brother is engaging in a paleo diet, which I guess means eating like a dinosaur. Dinosaurs, everyone knows, stayed away from process foods. Strictly meat and veggie types, no pasta or doughnuts.
As we look back on this past year, there is enough bad news to make us downright depressed.
The fire in the Cedar Riverside neighborhood that gave an unhappy New Year to the Somali community and displaced a mosque. Word is that three people have died, several are wounded and people are without homes.
The last session of congress was the most cantankerous and unproductive in recent history, and it doesn’t appear to be getting any better.
Beloved shops in our neighborhood have closed down: the Podium, Duffy’s, House of Hanson, all to make room for another ubiquitous six-story luxury apartment that only some can afford. Parking has disappeared and violence in our neighborhood is on the rise.
While the unemployment numbers are better, plenty of us are underemployed and would love to be working in our field.
Gas spills, climate change and questionable priorities of civic leaders leaves us wondering what will happen next.
Syria is in crisis and there seems to be no end to our involvement in Afghanistan. We look on with horror at the struggles in South Sudan.
Then there are the normal tragedies that we remember. The people we have lost in the past year, Spencer Parsons, my dad, Susan Peterson, Jim Carman, parents, cousins, dear friends.
It’s all too much and we are tempted to throw up our hands and say, “You win”. Or worse, “where is God?”
The people of Israel were in a similar boat.
They were living in an occupied land. Herod, the vassal king of a different religion was conscripting poor Hebrew people to build his fortresses and monuments. He was in cahoots with the Roman overlords who liked to impose taxes and have people walk scores of miles to be counted in a census, whether or not they were able to do so.
The great temple in Jerusalem was repaired under Herod, but it was only a shell. It held nostalgia, but it was no longer a house for the Hebrew people. Its unique Hebrew history was whitewashed away and in its courtyard, Greek stone gods stood.
When people spoke out against Herod or the Romans, they were tortured, their crucified bodies left to rot on the road as a warning. The people walked in darkness and many did give up. They cursed the darkness and wondered where God had gone. We can and should curse this darkness. And it can feel good and even righteous to do so.
But is it enough to curse the darkness?
Into this barren wasteland, when all hope seemed lost, God came—smuggled in as an illegitimate homeless child from a hated backwoods land. This is how God explodes onto the earth—as a suffering servant, a vulnerable child, a symbol of solidarity with the most forgotten and despised and bummed out people.
Luke said that God showed up to shepherds and homeless children. Matthew said that God showed up to an unwed mother who had to risk her life. And a new story was woven into our very story. As the prophet spoke, “the people who have walked in darkness have seen a great light.”
The writer of Ephesians declared: “with the eyes of our hearts enlightened, we will know the hope to which we belong.”
Epiphany is when we remember that darkness is not the final word. And we enter this New Year with hearts and eyes enlightened.
God came into the deepest darkest moments and brought light. A light in the sky. Was it Jupiter? The eastern mystics saw it. But it’s what it symbolized. A light we could embrace that made them go home a different way.
When the Magi had their hearts and minds enlightened, they went home a different way rather than betray the Holy Family’s whereabouts to Herod.
When Mary’s mind was enlightened, she remembered Hannah’s revolutionary song of deliverance and made it her own. She sang about how God had looked with favor on God’s lowly handmaiden, how the poor were lifted up and the rich sent empty away.
When Joseph’s mind was enlightened, he took Jesus and Mary off to Egypt until the threat from Herod had passed.
When the disciples had their hearts and minds enlightened, they left their nets and followed Jesus.
When the early church had their hearts and minds enlightened on Pentecost, they understood people of different races and cultures. That was the seed from which the church grew.
The writer of Sirach gives us an image of the spirit of Wisdom being everywhere. Lady Wisdom appears and tells her creation story. “I came forth from the mouth of the Host High and covered the earth like a mist.” I imagine the fog rolling in from the sea with its salty taste, enveloping everything, but harming nothing. She dwelt alone in the highest heaven in a pillar of cloud and traveled across the heavens as she pleased. But like Adam, the first mud-creature, she was lonely. So God told her to dwell among the Hebrew people—an honored people. Barbara Brown Taylor put it this way: “With all the divine freedom in the world at her disposal, she longed for a resting place on earth. The mist envied the mud. The universal longed for the particular. Holding sway over every people and nation was not enough for Wisdom. She wanted to take root somewhere; she wanted to belong to someone.” (Feasting on the Word, Year A Volume 1 p.173)
She is waiting and looking for a place to live. Maybe she lives in you, oh honored one.
How have our minds, eyes and hearts been enlightened? Where have you seen the presence of God? Where has the mist enveloped you? Where have we seen the light?
And because you have been so enlightened, how will your life change?
Last week, a clergy colleague Oby Ballenger was assaulted down the street from his house while getting some eggs for his husband’s breakfast. He could have sought vengeance against his attackers. Instead, he went on the news with a shiner and facial abrasions to say that the people who assaulted him were lost children of our neighborhoods. And the correct response is to be better neighbors and to support people before they make bad choices. His eyes and his heart are enlightened and he is trying to find ways to bring light to his neighborhood.
I attended a prayer service at a makeshift mosque at the Brian Coyle Community Center on Friday. We were mourning the death and destruction in Cedar Riverside. We were also there to witness support and courage in the community. I stood up with several other clergy members to offer space to the displaced mosque and to give whatever support the community needed. A Star Tribune reporter told me he was surprised that churches would open their doors to the mosque. I told him it didn’t surprise me one bit. It’s what we do. I love surprising people with hospitality. We call it grace.
This past year has seen a doubling of states in one year that have marriage equality. Whodathunkit? And the world hasn’t ended. In fact, there is a whole lot more light and hope because of it. It all happened because people’s hearts and eyes were enlightened.
Even the Pope has called for respect for the LGBT community. The church is seeing the light. Will they take the Pope up on his Biblical focus on the poor and oppressed?
Think about the opportunities this coming year:
There is a new mayor and city council.
There will be new neighbors in the area in the coming year as new apartment buildings open up.
We have deepened our partnerships with businesses and neighborhood activists.
There are new congregations worshiping here—five on Sundays alone.
Xcel Energy has announced a new embracing of solar energy.
Health care is slated to be more available, even beyond the difficulties with setting up the exchanges.
There is a new prophetic imagination, if we are able to accept it.
There is also a hankering for spiritual formation here at UBC.
We imagine new ways that we treat one another.
David Bartlett in his commentary in Feasting on the Word, said, “If Christmas Eve services run the danger of nudging us toward theological coziness, Sirach (and Ephesians) recalls us to reverence and awe” (Year A Volume 1, p.172)
Wisdom took her place amongst and honored people. Living honorably sounds like a very good New Year’s Resolution.
If we have a special relationship with God, does that make us smug or does it make us responsible?
I think the sacred responsibility is to see the world through enlightened hearts and eyes.
See the big picture.
See the destination, not just the obstacles.
See the hope, not just the failure.
See the others who walk this way with you, remembering that we walk this road with a great cloud of witnesses.
This New Year, cold and blustery as it is, is full of opportunities. God continues to surprise us, convict us and challenge us to be even better that we have been.
Wisdom takes her place among us awaiting our resolutions and supporting us as we follow through. And in the process, our hearts, our eyes, our minds are enlightened and we see our sacred responsibilities and we respond, “of course.”
The result is grace and beauty. It resembles light and it is good.
With hearts, minds and eyes enlightened, and as honorable people, let us take on this New Year and hold it and ourselves to the standard set before us by the Biblical witness. And may we all see and feel and be changed by that sacred light.