We Are All Bearers of Spirit and Light
We welcome the light, as we celebrate an ancient liturgy of epiphany, the appearance of the Sacred within our very lives. Here is the text of my sermon, and here is the video. All blessings and courage and good spirits for our New Year!
Epiphany means “appearance” What does that mean, and what is its invitation? It’s much more than three wise men on camels trudging across the desert, a story you know so well. You can see from the Isaiah reading this morning, where those images came from. Straight out of the prophet’s grand call to hope and rejoicing.
I address you now, this morning, in full seriousness: Greetings! O highly favored one! Gabriel initiated his great announcement to Mary, and in that very same way, the Holy, the Sacred Source, addresses you and me and all of us. Or, as Isaiah says: Your light has come! Indeed, for that very light is your essence and my essence. Truly, we would not be here, were it not so. That voice comes from within, though it surely doesn’t seem so. It seems so entirely “other,” which is also true.
Inner or outer? Our essence or what we most long for? The answers are, of course, Yes. In a sentence, that voice, that message, and that light spoken of constantly in both testaments is both within and without, and what we already are and participate in at the same time that our very hearts ache to be connected with it. These are unanswerable questions, and like all worthy mysteries, they lead us into great depths of spirit.
Every religious tradition that I know anything about wrestles with these questions and offers teaching stories to their seekers of wisdom and truth. Rachel has given us rich tales of people being visited by the Holy, by the “Other,” and she has encouraged us to recognize that we too are being visited and invited and taught, in very similar ways as Mary and Elizabeth, Joseph, shepherds, and now kings were visited, invited, and taught. There are appearances, voices, a baby leaping in a womb, a great star in the sky, dreams, and pregnant silences.
How can we make sense of these stories, in this cynical, materialist, post-modern world we live in?
I’m going to try here, to share how I take up these stories, and how I am slowly learning to make sense of them, sense for myself, at least. I will need to gather up my courage, but I do so happily because I know here I stand within “the beloved community,” and it is here one can tell a story. I know there have been many epiphanies in my life, some major and some so small they would have been easy to miss. I absolutely believe this is true for each of you as well. Learning to see and hear in these moments, which often seem somehow to come from outside of daily reality, is one way to mark your spiritual path. Removing the obstacles to this – healing our deafness and blindness, as Jesus demonstrates constantly – is our spiritual practice.
This leads me to some very tough questions. The first is, in what kind of universe could this be true?
I know very few things for sure. Even Newton’s laws of physics only apply under very limited and specific circumstances, for example, though we didn’t understand that until we gained powerful new insights into astrophysics and quantum mechanics, all in the last century. I keep a small “oh, really? Is that true?” in a back pocket of my mind. I have learned that most things are partly true, or true under certain circumstances, or true metaphorically, not literally. Our daily lives resemble our dream worlds much more than we can easily tolerate.
However, I am pretty persuaded that a) there are realms beyond our three dimensional world of time and space; b) that there are occasional “moments” when the boundaries between our realm and the others are more permeable than usual; and c) that much of the history of human religious and spiritual practices around the globe are attempts to attend to those openings; and d) that this probably suggests human beings are neurologically “hard wired” to do this.
I am also certain that way behind our concepts and representations of the divine – God, Allah, YHWH, the Unnameable, the Holy One, the Inexhaustible Oneness – is a potent energy which manifests itself into forms. The forms appear, do whatever their form requires, and then dissolve back into formlessness. Our version of that is birth and death. The Cosmos, writ infinitely large and potent, manifests Itself endlessly, pouring Itself into forms, new versions and old versions. This is the Creation story. And the Evolution story. Think “Big Bang”, and you will begin to get a little sense of our modern story. I’m pretty sure all the stories, perhaps even the story of the Big Bang, are mythic, that they are our best attempt at understanding and expressing in language, in any particular historical moment, of what makes sense in our culture and society.
This has many implications, but let me now just name three. First: You, yes, you, beloved islander, friend of Madeline, are a manifestation of what all human societies have named “Holy” and Sacred. Let me say that again. You are a manifestation, you are full of the energy we have always called “holy.” This is how it is, that you are, that you are in form here and now, and that that Unnameable Energy holds you in life and in form.
Second: In the same way, every other being is also a manifestation of the Holy and the Divine. Every other being is also a carrier of the Light, of Divine intention, as well as a being who will dissolve back into formlessness.
And third, this of course is also true of our very planet and all it holds within its orbit.
What can this mean for us? And especially, for our understanding of who we really are? It could shape all our behavior towards every being, including the earth. If each of us, if you and I and the sea gulls and the pine trees and the hungry kids in Afghanistan are all manifestations of that same Cosmic Sacredness, then surely we must bow in respect to each other and treat kindly every one of us, including all we arrogantly name, “nature.”
We must also do the very hard work – I know of what I speak – of recognizing our own fundamental goodness, and that the lively light of the universe pulses within every single one of us, in our hearts and minds. So Gabriel’s “Greetings, O favored one!” to young Mary becomes a greeting to you and to me and to each of us. Surely this is what is meant in the Biblical Creation story, that we were “created in the very image of God.”
This year of the virus, as difficult as it has been, has also brought its gifts. Many of us recognize we are learning to slow down, to pay attention to our landscapes, both inner and outer. The blessed silence of our island winter invites each of us to watch, to listen, to open, and to receive. It is all mysterious and full of wonder.
The celebration of Epiphany reminds us of this, and then blesses each moment of our deep seeing and hearing. We are reminded, sometimes gently and sometimes by knowing our world has been rocked to its foundations, that the Holy within us is resonating with this truth we cannot speak. Outer and inner are not separated, nor are we separated from each other. And it is the Holy within us that so longs for the very Presence of God.
And so, “Greetings, Greetings, O highly favored one. “ Truly, you are beloved of the Most High.