“For the present form of this world is passing away,” a sermon for January 24

For the present form of this world is passing away

January 24, 2021

Third Sunday after the Epiphany, Year B

The Rev. Dr. Stuart Higginbotham

Hear, again, a line from today’s lesson from First Corinthians: For the present form of this world is passing away.

My first day as your rector was January 6, 2014, the Feast of the Epiphany. I was so glad that it ended up being that day, and I loved the significance of beginning my ministry with you on a feast day that celebrates the manifestation of God throughout the world.  On that day, I went to the chapel to celebrate my first Eucharist with a group of parishioners.  

As I walked into the vesting room to put on my robes, I realized that I had never asked where the vestments actually were.  I had no idea where the chasubles or stoles were, and it was time to start the service.  I saw a closet where the acolyte albs were and I looked on the side and found an old chasuble that was clearly meant for the Season of Lent, not Epiphany, being made of a very heavy, light brown, almost burlap fabric. There was also another chasuble that appeared to be tie-dyed.  There was nothing else I could do: I put on the burlap chasuble and headed over to the chapel.  At least it was warm, I thought.

When I got to the chapel narthex, the entrance to the space there, it suddenly dawned on me that I had no idea how to actually “get in” the worship space to start the service.  There was no hymn to sing and walk in to, since it was a spoken service.  There was no bell to ring to signal that we were starting.  I stared down the short aisle, confused about how to actually take next steps and walk into the room and begin the prayers.

I just stood there in the doorway, a little anxious, as I looked at the about three dozen or so folks who were politely standing by their pews, looking back at me in a sort of awkward staring contest.  

Finally, one man who was standing closest to me, made a welcoming gesture with his hands.  I laughed out loud and told them all, “This is embarrassing, but I have no idea how to start the service with you all.” When they laughed and broke the ice, I finally walked to the front and began the prayers–after I figured out where to sit, because I had not thought about that either.  

It’s a scary thing not to know how to take next steps. 

It feels to me like we, as a culture, a world, are in the midst of an enormous shift in the way we will live, and we are struggling to know how to start this, how to take the next steps together into this new way of being.  The way we understand “being the church” has changed.  The ethos of our country has changed, and many have very heightened feelings about that.  

I still hear some folks say that they can’t wait to “go back,” but I hear it far less now than I did after, say, two or three months.  Or even six.  And when I hear anyone say it now, they almost always add some qualifier, like “When we go back, I mean, when we are back in person or back in the building.”  Reality has set in a bit more, and while there will come a time when we will be gathered together in this space to worship God side by side, it will not be like it was, say, this time last year.  We have changed, grown.  I dare say that, in some ways, we have been transformed–or are being transformed.  

I am also aware that our entire nation is undergoing a transformation–or an all-out crisis of identity.  It’s interesting how in the Bible, those two things are the same: what feels like a crisis of identity ends up being an experience when people are transformed by grace into a new way of living and being.  Saul being knocked off his horse immediately comes to mind.  Or Jacob wrestling the angel at night.  Or the crucifixion.

How does it feel to you? Some groups or communities can feel themselves breathing easier, while others feel absolutely threatened.  Some who have felt marginalized feel lighter now while others, who perceive their power to be at risk, are honestly looking right now at ways to lash out in violence and hatred.  Some can breathe easier while others just want to scream.

All of us are struggling to know how to take steps together into this new space and time of being human.  These are not easy days.  No days are easy, actually, but these are our days and something about them feels particularly significant.  

They are powerful days, too, full of energy and potential.  At so many points during this past year, the team and I have looked at each other and said, “What an incredible time to be here.  To be alive.”  Granted I said this more, I think, after I started taking my anxiety medication.  But perhaps you get the point: if we dare to look at our lives this way, as an opportunity for spiritual growth, which is an exercise in trusting the Spirit, what an incredible time to be here together, as something is coming to be, some new way of understanding ourselves as human beings together in the global family of God’s creation.  

But to repeat: It’s a scary thing not to know how to take next steps.

Today’s texts all describe a movement, a transition from one way of being to another way of being.  From one perspective to another. When we lay them alongside each other, what pattern do we see?

Jonah arrives at Nineveh (after his, shall we say, delay from being swallowed by the great fish after struggling to take next steps himself), and he walks through the city calling the people to repentance, to a conversion of life.  And the city listens and changes its ways.  The people move into a new way of being and, as the text says, a calamity was avoided.

St. Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians is very challenging as it lays out the image of:

let even those who have wives be as though they had none, and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no possessions, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away.

And then, of course, from St. Mark’s Gospel account today, we see Jesus walking up to Simon and Andrew, who were busy working to support their families.  He tells them: “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” And immediately they left their nets and followed him.  Then, they walk further and see John and James, and they immediately follow him as well.  

Three stories of movement into new spaces, of taking next steps into a new way of being and understanding the world.  Three images of trusting and resting in a new perspective.  And perhaps we ask, What does it mean to be challenged to move from one way of being, of seeing the world, into another?  

But to repeat: It’s a scary thing not to know how to take next steps.

Like it or not, at the heart of Christian practice lies a pattern of movement: the Spirit moving through our lives with us being called to move from rigid ways of being into trusting ways of being.  Choose this day whom you will serve.  I set before you life and death.  

God is a god of movement, and we think of God walking through the Garden at the time of the evening breeze.  

And we think of how Adam and Eve hid in the bushes, ashamed after resisting God’s own direction and grasping at their own ideas.  

God is a god of movement, and we remember that the Spirit blows where it will.  

It seems to me that the question before us now is this: can we trust the Spirit’s movement and participate in it?

And while I don’t have clear answers, so to speak, to this struggle, I have found anchor points in my own discernment, in my own wrestling at knowing how to stand, where to put my feet.  Of knowing how to respond as I see movement in our world.  

Recognizing in myself that anxiety that comes with uncertainty, and knowing in my heart that I am called to trust the Spirit’s movement, I can ask myself in situations: Do I see life there?  Do I see beauty there?  Do I see hope and peace and justice there?  Can I see the fruits of the Spirit there, wherever there may be?  

Can I sense love there?  And, oh, that is the key, is it not?  Can I sense love there?  God is love and where true love is, God is very present there.  

But, or and, sometimes in those moments of uncertainty, I find myself resisting, and this is the second anchor point in my own discernment: when I feel myself resisting, can I take the risk to say–even if only to myself–what I am afraid of?  Can I be honest about the fear I feel in that moment?  

Is it a real fear, really something to be cautious of?  Or, if I’m honest, is it actually pride and anger at work because that part of my ego feels like it is losing control and power?  Is it really something to be cautious of, or am I really just mad because I want it another way because I was benefitting from that previous way of living?  Or am I just mad because I have so rigidly identified with my “team” or “party” or whatever and I am caught in that zero-sum, win-lose mentality?

Whew.  For me, these two anchor points are absolutely key in my discernment, and they help me navigate life in these days.  

But, as Cynthia and I were reflecting the other day, here I must be reminded–and remind you–that there is another anchor point that precedes these two points of “Do I sense love there?” and “What am I afraid of?”, an essential point for us always to remember.  Before we enter into such a time of discernment, we must ask ourselves this question these days: Can I breathe right now?  

Can I breathe?  Because if the answer to this is no, we risk being reactive and defensive on one hand, and prideful and arrogant on the other.  

We must pay attention to our breathing, which is to say we must pay attention to our practice of prayer.  Prayer, which lies at the absolute heart of our practice as Christians.  To pray is to listen to the Spirit, to attune our hearts for the Spirit’s stirrings.  And to do that we must take time and dedicate ourselves to this.  

Because I know that the Spirit invites us into new ways of life.  I know that the Spirit moves in our hearts as persons and guides us as a community, and we are called to participate in that movement.  We are called to share in the divine life.  

Yes it’s scary not to know how to take next steps, but we remember that we do not take them alone.  

Yes, as St. Paul wrote, the present form of this world is passing away, but we remember that God’s presence fills all things and invites all things into redemption and wholeness.  And I can trust that.  I can trust that.  

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