Sermon for the Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany Preacher: The Rev. Bret B. Hays
One time when I was a kid, my school had an assembly, but it wasn’t to talk about an important issue or to make an announcement. No, they stopped everyone’s school day, herded us into a room and got us to quiet down, more or less, to tell us we were special. Yes, all of us were equally, uniformly, special, each exactly as special as the next. They even had a song. Even then, in the moment, I wasn’t buying it. I wanted to quote from The Princess Bride: “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” We spent a lot of time in the classroom learning new words, what they meant, and how to use them correctly, and I was pretty sure I knew what the word “special” meant, and that applying the word generically to an entire population was not appropriate.
Fortunately, it’s not too difficult to identify people and things that actually are special. In a world of hustling charlatans, self-appointed moral guardians, and holier-than-thou snobs, Jesus stood out. He could actually cure the sick, he taught with authority, and though he could be blunt and confrontational, his message was fundamentally good news, that God loves us, forgives us, heals us, and inspires us to grow into the full potential of our created nature. The people, ordinary hard-working long-suffering people, responded to this unique person. Even though Jesus was not seeking celebrity, the whole city gathered at the house where he was staying. They came with a sense of urgency, as soon as their religious law would permit. They came with faith, hope, and no small amount of desperation, and Jesus did not disappoint them.
The throngs of people literally left their mark on Peter’s house. Centuries after it served as Jesus’s base of operations, faithful pilgrims continued to visit, and many of them etched Christian symbols on its stones. So when the first church was built on the site, in the fifth century, the Christians of that day knew where to build. Today, you can still see those same stones, through the glass floor of the ultra-modern church that now occupies the site; I’ve been there, one more pilgrim seeking out the holy.
What would it take to get the whole city to gather at our door? Should I expand my ministry into faith healing? Hold up a big softcover bible in one hand and slap sick people with the other, saying, “Out, Satan!” As much fun as that would be, I don’t see it happening. For one thing, it’s not what people need; we have real health care now and plenty of spectacles on TV. But people do need what we are already offering: an authentic, inclusive, active community growing out of a corporate encounter with God. Everything we do as a church grows out of our practice of worship. This is the inner circle, right here, and all are welcome to join in. This is the place where we are reminded that the love of God continues to reach out to us, giving our lives meaning and direction, connecting us to our maker and sustainer. There are a lot of good works being done in this city and we do quite a few of them ourselves. That’s great, that’s the Gospel in action. But what sets us apart is not the good works that we do but the relationship and the understanding that inspire us to do them. This is the place where the ordinary routines of our lives stop to make way for something that is truly special, something that makes real transcendence possible because it is not of our making.
Jesus himself made a point of interrupting his routine with prayer. He understood better than anyone that his public ministry grew out of the union of God and humanity which was the very essence of his being. And so we follow him by doing the same thing, staying connected to God. We know that our relationship with God is what makes us special, and the closer we get to God, the more intensely we feel that reality. This is true no matter how many of us are gathered here, for in the Eucharist we are connected to all Christians in heaven and on earth as well as to the God who is making all things right, healing all the ordinary brokenness of the world. If that’s not special, I don’t know what is.
Praise God, from whom all blessings flow;
Praise God, all creatures here below;
Praise God above, ye heavenly host;
Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.