Sermons That Work

This Last Sunday…, Last Sunday in Epiphany (B) – 2006

February 26, 2006

This last Sunday of Epiphany completes a cycle of readings in which we experience God’s engagement in the world in many forms. From the arrival of the magi to the call of Samuel, from the call of the disciples to the teachings in the synagogue, from the healing of the widow’s son to the raising of Peter’s mother-in-law, God is manifest in the here and now, calling God’s people to ever new participation in the world and with one another. Reading scripture texts in church on Sunday, it may seem as if God’s presence were self-evident, the answer to the call a simple yes. Yet reading closely, even with those faithful witnesses of long ago, we become aware of their struggle, of their indecision or miscalculation, of the transition time it takes to say yes to the call to move into God’s future — even when we expect we know the outcome.

Parents who have ever attended birthing classes know this only too well. They learn the stages of the birthing process. First, the birthing coach learns to assist the mother in dealing with what may be hours of labor, breathing in and blowing out in rhythm to ease the pain. There is the end stage of pushing when the new life emerges from the womb, often with a great sense of power and wonder. In between there is a middle stage in this process called Transition. And you can’t get from labor to birth without it. There are certainly medical and technical ways to describe this stage, but basically it is exactly what it says — transition — that brief time when the baby is still firmly within the womb, yet unmistakably ready to come out. Women who describe this stage — for which there is little coaching to be done — say this is the most difficult time of birth. Midwives often report jokingly that “transition” is the moment when women decide they really didn’t want to have a baby after all and would prefer to return to the way things were. There is the strong physical and mental desire to keep the baby safely in the place where it has been for nine months, yet the equally irresistible urge to push the baby out. Transition in the birth process is that scary time when two equally powerful forces meet: the desire to keep things as they are and the pull toward new birth that changes everything.

We don’t usually think of today’s scripture texts as part of a birth process. But that is indeed what they are: transitional moments for a faith journey calling God’s people into new being.

In the Old Testament story of Elijah and Elisha we hear the anguish of the prophets as the mantle of leadership is passed. We see the faithfulness of Elisha who would like to believe that his master is not leaving. Knowing that the journey from Bethel to the Jordan will eventually end in Elijah’s death, Elisha refuses to part from him — despite the warnings of the prophets. Elijah tries to leave his disciple behind, but Elisha insists on traveling faithfully from Bethel to Gilgal to Jericho and the Jordan River. He does not agree to take on leadership until Elijah promises the possibility of a double share of the spirit of God. And only when Elisha watches Elijah taken into the heaven does he picks up the mantle left by Elijah, assured that the spirit of God is his own as well. During that long journey both Elijah and Elisha were “in transition.” Even with God in charge and the sure knowledge of what was to come before them, the journey was neither easy nor self-evident. The desire for the old to remain, the hesitation of taking on the new role was not without question or angst. Yet the presence of God in the parting of the waters as Elisha watched Elijah’s departure gave the assurance of God’s blessing. It was time for the new to be born, for Elisha to take on prophetic leadership — even in fear and trembling.

The text from Mark’s gospel offers us yet another story of reluctant transition. Peter, James, and John on the mountain with Jesus experience a vision of Moses and Elijah. Immediately they want to hold onto this vision of Jesus and the prophets by building booths, a dwelling a place to remain on the mountain. Perhaps they yearned to keep hold of a way of life they knew well, ensuring the presence of Moses and Elijah along with Jesus. Perhaps they wanted to cling to a familiar way of being faithful. When suddenly the vision changes and Jesus is transfigured alone on the mountain, it is clear that some new thing is breaking into the horizon. The disciples are called to listen and see Jesus not only in the line of the prophets but also as the beloved son of God acting in the world in a new way.

In both these texts, the powerful voices of old are not denied or negated but passed on to new leaders, new work, and most especially to new ways of being in relationship with God. Elisha, even with a double dose of Elijah’s spirit, grieves the absence of his mentor and rends his garments. The disciples on the mountain with Jesus are terrified. Yet in both cases, they move on to say yes to God’s call to leadership among the people of God.

Today, we too are called to say yes to God’s call of leadership. Our church today may well be in a moment of transition. We might just as soon keep things as they are or have been, yet we know just as well that we are called to new places of faithfulness and to examine God’s call anew.

Designated as World Mission Sunday, today we are challenged to explore, engage, and discern God’s mission in our own churches and communities with regard to the reconciling mission of God in the world.

This year, you are invited to examine the role of leadership that Anglican women are playing in a world that increasingly needs all voices at the table in seeking to claim God’s promise of abundant life for all. Is it possible that God is calling women in our time to play a particular role of leadership using their particular skills? We live in a time of grave danger and war in our world and of controversy within the church. Is it possible that women, whether by nature or nurture, have the skills necessary to recall the family of God to the table of conversation and reconciliation? Is it possible that women whose work has often been to keep families at the table, have the gifts needed to engage those who disagree in a new dialogue that seeks a common faithfulness to the Gospel of Christ? Is it possible that women and men together might take the renewed mantle of God’s prophetic witness to move forward in the healing of a broken world?

The World Mission Sunday poster highlights Anglican women whose work as delegates to the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women is responsive, relevant, and radical in their commitment to put their Gospel faith into action. Now is the time for us follow their lead; to move from transition’s desire to keep things the same and answer the irresistible call to say yes to what is coming to birth. What might it mean for each of us to respond not just to our own needs or those of our family, community or church, but to those around the world? What does it mean for our church to deepen its relevance to the needs of that whole world? And indeed, how might we bring the radical witness of the prophets and Jesus with us as we move into a church whose members build on the foundation of a strong past and move with passion into the future?

Anglican women from around the world invite all of us to join in this work, assured that God’s coming among us will continue to be made manifest in this season and well beyond. May we be given a double share of God’s spirit and the courage to take on the mantle as it is passed. AMEN

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Christopher Sikkema


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