First United Methodist Church – Omaha
Rev. Kent H. Little
Epiphany: January 5, 2020
Wisdom Readings: Gautama Buddha, , Ephesians 3:1-12
Message: “What Do You See?”
In the light of his vision that is the perspective that allows him to be grateful that things are not worse he has found his freedom and joy: his thoughts are peace; his words are peace and his work is peace.
This is the reason that I Paul am a prisoner for Christ Jesus for the sake of you Gentiles— for surely you have already heard of the commission of God’s grace that was given to me for you, and how the mystery was made known to me by revelation, as I wrote above in a few words, a reading of which will enable you to perceive my understanding of the mystery of Christ. In former generations this mystery was not made known to humankind, as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit: that is, the Gentiles have become fellow-heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.
Of this gospel I have become a servant according to the gift of God’s grace that was given to me by the working of his power. Although I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given to me to bring to the Gentiles the news of the boundless riches of Christ, and to make everyone see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things; so that through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. This was in accordance with the eternal purpose that he has carried out in Christ Jesus our Lord, in whom we have access to God in boldness and confidence through faith in him.
MESSAGE “What Do You See?”
Last week TruDee and I visited our kids for Christmas. One of the mornings I rose before light and was sitting in the living room with my feet propped up on the footstool. Shortly after I had sat down, I heard footsteps on the stairs. I opened one eye and saw our oldest granddaughter coming down the stairs. I closed my eyes again and soon felt her crawling up on the couch beside me. She whispered, “Poppie, are you awake?” I opened one eye, looked at her, and whispered back, “Yes.” “Can I turn on the light?” I answered, “Why do you want to turn on the light?” She replied, “So I can see.” “What do you want to see?” I asked. “You!” she said.
I thought it appropriate on this first Sunday of the 2020 and Epiphany Sunday to ask the question, “What do you see?” or “What do you want to see?” as we move into this new year of 2020.
As I pondered this Sunday and what I might say as we journey into a new year I was driving across town the other day and remembered a story my dad told me years ago. I do not remember now if it was before or after I had entered into the ministry. It was a story about his own journey early in his ministry as he was wading through the depths of seminary. He shared with me a comment one of his professors had made to him. If I recall correctly it was something to the effect of, “You think you are pretty liberal don’t you Jim? Well, I’ll tell you from experience, when push comes to shove, you’ll come back to the Word, you come back to the orthodox beliefs.” That is not an exact quote by any means, but it certainly catches the essence of what I remember in the story he shared.
There was some truth to what that seminary professor told my father that day, truth in terms of my dad. As he grew older, I think he did lose some of that edginess and progressiveness to his theology. I could go on about the whys and how’s I think that happened, but he’s not here to defend himself, and he would probably be wrong anyway.
I thought of this story the other day because one of my favorite songs played on the radio as I drove across town the other day. It is by Mike and the Mechanics, The Living Years, released in 1988. It is a song of regret and hope, a song of longing and a song of life. There are several lyrics in the song that always make me think of dad, and there is often that knot in the stomach and a tear that comes when I sing along with the radio, but a particular few lines almost always launch me into a ponderous mood… they are the very opening lines of the song…
Blames the one before
And all of their frustrations
Come beating on your door
I know that I’m a prisoner
To all my Father held so der
I know that I’m a hostage
To all his hopes and fears.1
What does it mean to “know that I am a prisoner to all my father held so dear, know that I’m a hostage to all his hopes and fears?” I thought of the song, that led me to the story of dad, because I was working on this morning’s message. It came to me as I pondered the wisdom reading we shared this morning from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians.
“This is the reason that I Paul am a prisoner for Christ Jesus for the sake of you Gentiles…” There is that word again, I thought as I sang along with the song… prisoner… what does it mean to be a prisoner of what another held so dear? What does it mean to be a prisoner of another’s hopes and fears? What does it mean to be a prisoner for Christ Jesus for the sake of another?
Those opening lines of this song have haunted me for a long time. They have haunted me because to some degree I believe I knew at least some of my father’s hopes and dreams However, I also know of some of those that he appeared to let go of as he got older. In that sense, I can grasp the nature of being a prisoner to that openness, progressiveness I think he chased but never embraced.
And I hear echoes of that dream in Paul’s words this morning… a Prisoner of the Hope and Light of Christ… a Prisoner of the reality of God’s grace and love for all peoples in the face of the continued exclusion of the gentiles. I have pondered all of this as we come to this Epiphany Sunday… Epiphany… a time of revealing; Revealing this imprisonment not as a negative thing… but as something that holds us close… an imprisonment that keeps us steady… an imprisonment that reminds us we can never be separated from Love… this epiphany … this Revealing of the mystery of the love and Grace of God in and through Jesus Christ according to Paul.
So, what does it mean to be a prisoner of this hope? A prisoner of this vision? A prisoner of this grace and love? New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day I pondered such things as the time went by. 2020, just another year, to my ears it sounds like science fiction, yet… here we are. What does it look like… 2020? What do you see? What does 2020 look like for the faith? What does 2020 look like for the church… for the UMC? What does 2020 look like for our country… for the world? One can get pretty cynical pretty fast. Wild fires in Australia. Impeachment articles and an impending trial in our government. An act of war with a drone attack. Continued posturing in the UMC around trying to birth a fully inclusive church… numerous plans, most recently a proposal that offers… perhaps… some sense of forward movement…. Perhaps. And we are only on day 5. It is pretty easy to be pessimistic about almost everything.
I ponder the news, the books I read, the conversations I have, the people I listen to, … where is the hope? And yet… even on my struggle… I remember another thought, Cornel West who said, “I cannot be an optimist, but I am a prisoner of hope.” Laying out a difference between optimism and hope. Hope is different. Hope is deeper. Hope is more nourishing. This hope also brings to mind the verse from Zechariah 9:12… “Return to your stronghold, O prisoners of hope; today I declare that I will restore to you double!” Omid Safi in a blog from On Being writes…
“Hope is powerful. Hope is different. It is more, much more, than mere optimism. Optimism runs deep in the American consciousness. Many have commented on the inherent optimism of the American people. But optimism is…. cheap. Optimism is ultimately about optics, about how we see the world. It’s about seeing the glass half-full. Hope is different. Hope is a cosmic quality. Hope is rooted in faith, with feet mired in suffering. Hope is a heart in agony that yearns for liberation. As Desmond Tutu says, “Hope is being able to see that there is light despite all of the darkness.” Hope is tied not to how we see the world, but to the faith we have in how the world actually is and will be. Hope is not about seeing the world, but about the heart behind the eye, the soul that sees. We hope that light will, someday, triumph over darkness, that love will gain victory over hatred, that compassion will gain over apathy. We need to hope, to bear the darkness.” 2
I believe this is the kind of hope in which Paul was immersed when he wrote to the Ephesians…
“Although I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given to me to bring to the Gentiles the news of the boundless riches of Christ, and to make everyone see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things; so that through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. This was in accordance with the eternal purpose that he has carried out in Christ Jesus our Lord, in whom we have access to God in boldness and confidence through faith in him.”
This boldness and confidence of which Paul speaks is not arrogance, writes Lisa Fischbeck, “rather it is an assurance of the call, assurance of the light and the life that are ours in Christ, we receive the commission to make known that light and that life, that forgiveness, healing, and compassion to those who come our way.” 3
The letters of Paul encourage us to live as if this light, this life, this inclusive faith and church already exist! No matter the circumstance… or state of the world… we are to live as prisoners of hope… we are called to live as a community of hope. For it is the power of community that will carry us through, regardless of the outcomes around us… we, called to live as prisoners of the hope of Christ.
I think about that story of the seminary professor and my dad… and myself… imprisoned (embraced, held, bound up) in the hope he had… I wish now I could tell him… his professor was wrong; I can never go back. I think about the song which ends with the lines –
“I think I caught his spirit
Later that same year
I’m sure I heard his echo
In my baby’s new born tears”4
It is the Spirit of New Life… in a New Year… Prisoners of the Light… Prisoners of Hope … Prisoners of Compassion… Prisoners of a Love that Will not Let Us Go! Ever. This. Is. So.
1 Mike and the Mechanics, (1988) Living Years
2 Safi, Omid, (2015) Prisoners of Hope, The On Being Project. Minneapolis, MN
3 Fischbeck, Lisa G, (2010), Ephesians 3:1-12, Feasting on the Word, Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, KY
4 Mike and the Mechanics, (1988) Living Years