Sunday, 5 February 2012

Epiphany Address, Westgate Chapel, Wakefield 15-1-2012

This time of year is called Epiphany, from the Greek meaning ‘striking or sudden appearance or manifestation’. In the Church, Epiphany is when the Magi presented their gifts to the infant Jesus and had the sudden ‘realisation’ or Eureka-moment that there, in that baby, was Emmanuel – God with us. The Word made Flesh. The distant and unknowable made knowable, the unseen made visible. God revealed to us as and through humanity.

 No matter your theological views on Jesus, the fundamental revelation still exists – God revealed as and through a human being, like you and I. The Word made Flesh, not as with the Old Testament covenants, the Word made Words on Tablets of Stone or Purity Codes, but the Word made flesh. But how often have we forgotten that the Word became Flesh! How many times do mainstream churches forget this in their fetishisation of the Bible?  As the hymn writer says, “The Lord has yet more light and love to shed forth from his word.” God didn’t stop speaking with the Bible. Because of the Word made Flesh, God is revealed through people like you and me. That’s scary isn’t it? It’s challenging. It’s dynamic. No wonder we seek the security of “Thou Shalt Not”. God is still speaking through the words and deeds of prophetic men and women, through all the arts and sciences, and above all, in that personal, “still small voice of calm” that we may all experience.


Time and again the Disciples struggled, and the Pharisees tried to trap Jesus because of this extraordinary revelation. “Tell us what to do Jesus.” Asking Jesus if he has any commandments, how they should live their life to be acceptable to God. Tell us what to do! Give us some Thou Shalt Nots. Like in the scene in “The Life of Brian” where Brian’s followers ask him what they should do, and he replies telling them to be themselves. To which the crowd responds in unison “Yes. We are all individuals”. But Jesus didn’t do that because he merely told his Disciples and continues to tell us simply to Love; to Love God and to love our neighbours as ourselves.

When Jesus said “ I and the father are one, even as they may be one” he was not expressing some narrow theological argument, but a state of being. A relationship between himself and God: he was so close in his walk with God that he was spiritually ‘one’ with God, as Bishop John Shelby Spong describes it ‘God-intoxicated’.  This is a fundamental relationship recognised by all the great seekers and mystics: this fundamental relationship with God and that God is revealed not just once for all time in Jesus but in all people, no matter who they are. God is greater than religion beyond churches and creeds; beyond race, wealth sex, and sexuality. God is present in all things and all people.  This just isn’t theology; this is a way of life, a call of justice, liberty, equality and family-hood (fraternité?).

Our Unitarian affirmation, ‘God is One’, is . . . about much more than narrow theology. It says that oneness, wholeness, is the very nature of reality, of ultimate reality, beyond all the diversity and separateness that we see around us. It says that all these disparate particulars, all these varieties and variations, all these divisions and subdivisions, rest within a universal oneness, the Divine Unity. Because God is One, Creation is one. Because Creation is one, humanity is one. Because humanity is one, my neighbour and I are one. And, indeed, each of us is one integrated whole participating in one infinitely greater yet still integrated whole.
I cite Cliff Reed because, as he says, it:
". . . opens the way to forgiveness and reconciliation, the restoration of respectful relationship. The chain of connection that runs through the universe can never be utterly broken even when things go wrong. It is our choice, as often as not, whether we feel that connecting chain as a light and reassuring reminder of our oneness, or, whether we feel it as a heavy and inescapable burden on our wilfulness. In the Parable of the Good Samaritan Jesus told, both the robbers and the men who ‘passed by on the other side’ represents the failure to love, the failure to realise the oneness that makes us kin as children of God and participants in the Divine Unity." 

Humankind and all creation are, therefore, understood to have been born out of, yet still remaining within, God or Nature. However, in our created forms – in which we are apt to loose sight of this embracing Divine Unity - we become increasingly susceptible to all the pressures that obscure from us this knowledge and wisdom. We begin to live badly, by which I mean we attempt to live counter to the divine spark that is everywhere present. We can’t really do this of course but in the attempt (whether consciously undertaken or not) lies the roots of all that we call sin - all our divisive destructiveness and violence to ourselves, one another and God and Nature. Our initial natural state in the Divine Unity may be good – we never really loose that – but in the thick of the action our natural state can best be described as profoundly confused and we quickly begin to tend towards the bad. Just because this is a liberal tradition which affirms an innate goodness in all humankind it doesn’t mean that we do not recognise the great evil we are all capable of and often display. Jesus, Ghandi the Dalai Lama and Hitler are all part of the same human family.

But, we also have a sense of what humankind could be if it truly knew its end in ultimate unity in God or Nature – who is all goodness, perfection, justice, mercy, wisdom and understanding. Home (the end of ends), the kingdom of Heaven in poetic parlance, is to be found in living continually in the knowledge of our Unity in God. The model or exemplar by which we judge our maturity in this faith and our place on the journey of life is, of course Jesus of Nazareth. He taught us that the oneness of God that he felt and expressed we, too, could feel and express.

We can see and use Jesus as a symbol of God, a concrete example of divine being and action. When we do this, though we make statements focused on Jesus, we are in fact trying to talk about God. Using this symbol we can talk about God as helpless and humble, sharing human vulnerability with us. We can see the brokenness of God, the giving up of power in order to take on pain and mortality; the creativity of love which remakes hope out of despair, promise out of sin; the incarnation of the divine in the human, making all of life sacred; the fusion of holiness with life; the divine self-offering. Using this symbol we can talk about comfort; about the light that shines in the darkness; about the certainty of love and joy. We can see the presence of God in every aspect of our lives, so that whatever our situation it is shared and understood. Using this symbol we can above all see God in our fellow-humans and thus be called to service. In every homeless child, every refugee, every criminal or outcast, every worker or preacher, those in authority and those without it, there is a child of God, one who is precious and loved.

Let us seek out our own inner light, and seek it not just here in this chapel, but across the street, in faces we do not know, recognising the inherent worth and dignity of all persons, who are all bearers and reflections of the same inner light: recognising the Divine Unity that embraces us all. Amen.

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