Transitions and Transformation

The First Sunday After Christmas
December 31st, 2017
The Rev. Austin K. Rios
St. Paul’s Within the Walls

As we come to the close of 2017, and stand on the brink of a new year, I find myself reflecting more and more on the power of making transitions and the way they can bind two seemingly different states of being, and serve as catalysts for new life.

Maybe you have come to church on this day because it is your habit to be here and you are a faithful part of this community.

Maybe you have come here today as you are passing through this city, transitioning from one place to another, on holiday.

Maybe you have no clue why you are here today, but it just feels right.

Regardless of why you find yourself in church on this transition day, I hope that as a result of your being here, you will find the strength to embrace a hopeful and transformed inner orientation as you go forth into a new year.

Because the gift of Christmas, that which we continue celebrating in this season, is that it is Jesus—the baby whom shepherds flocked to at Bethlehem, and the adult who will refer to himself as “the gate of the sheepfold,”—who serves and has served as a transition point for generations of the faithful, and as such, Jesus can help us in making our own transitions and transformations.

We bear witness today to his own transitioning and transformation in today’s Gospel from Luke.

We hear about Jesus’ presentation in the Temple, which was an important rite of passage for any new born Jewish boy during his time.

And though it may seem inconsequential, Luke tells us that Jesus’ family observed the law regarding the appropriate sacrifice to be offered on this occasion, a detail that may get lost in the greater arc of the story.

That single sentence about sacrifice communicates that Jesus’ family were good, faithful and practicing Jews.

In our own context we might say, “They came to church regularly, and they gave faithfully to God through St. Paul’s.”

But an important detail of Luke’s account is that their offering, the two turtledoves or two pigeons, was a provision in the law specifically for poor people.

Just in case we didn’t get the message the first time when there was no room in the inn, and when a manger served as Jesus’ crib, Mary and Joseph were poor folks, already living on the margins of their society because of their poverty, and forced even further there because of Mary’s mysterious pregnancy and the social taboos surrounding it.

And while Jesus’ social standing due to the financial status of his family is not all that defines him, it is important for understanding how he lived out his ministry and how he functions as a transition figure for us.

Later in his life, Jesus was a staunch defender of the poor and the marginalized, not because he swept in from the royal throne room of David to become their champion, but because he intimately knew what it meant to live life as one of them.

Poverty was his context, not simply his cause.

Knowing this detail makes the story we will explore next week, of the gifts of the magi, presented to this poor, vulnerable child whom they hail as a king, even more striking.

Is Jesus the fragile, poor, Jewish boy presented in the temple today, or is he the King adored by the Gentile wise men, whose reign threatens the King of the Jews so much that Herod tries to kill him?

He is both, and as we learn by engaging with and living into the Christ story, Jesus is almost always both/and when it comes to our deepest questions.

Because Jesus is the gate…the door…the transition stage and the link between seemingly opposed and incongruous states of being.

Jesus is the link between poverty and wealth. He is the marginalized nobody later hailed as truest nobility. The fragile child who is also triumphant Savior of the world.

Jesus’ place of prominence between these oft opposing realities is what makes him so special, and it is a quality that also allows those of us who follow him to hope for our own transitions and transformations.

Passing through the “gate” of Christ, we too can move from one way of being into another.

We too can recognize that in Christ, both states have meaning and value.

In St. Paul’s Letter to the Colossians, he speaks about Christ being the one “in whom all things hold together.”

And the more time I spend in ministry, and as witness to a world often fractured by constant opposition and struggle, the more I seek to align my life with the “door” and the “gate” and locate myself in the heart of the transition space…in the via media between divergent states of being.

Because that is where Jesus is most fully known and experienced, and it is where we find life and rest in a world of either/ors.

Jesus’ ultimate identity did not come from being poor or rich, from being Jewish or Gentile, or from any other set of categories that most often divide our world.

His identity came from being the son of God, a relationship that he saw as open to all of us regardless of language, race, creed, or nation.

That foundational identity is on display during his presentation in the Temple, witnessed by Simeon and Anna, and it was on display throughout his life and even to the cross.

Jesus was first and foremost a child of God, and invites us to know ourselves as the same.

Our challenge is to follow him and embrace this core identity for ourselves, which then puts into context the binary opposites that so often define and limit us.

The dualities of our world are connected by a door, a transition point…and as such, they are one.

Now when it comes to the things that normally constitute New Year’s resolutions…the forsaking of unhealthy and unhelpful habits and the adoption of more life-giving ones, aligning ourselves with Christ as the gate in this fashion means we must not cling to these old ways that need to die.

In fact, by knowing ourselves to be children of the same God, we are empowered to move into new ways of being by the same Spirit that passed over the marked doors in Egypt and split the waters of the Red Sea, the same Spirit that cast out demons and healed infirmities, making new creations out of people who seemed to be stuck on dead-end roads.

Jesus is the gate that leads to eternal life, but in this sense the door opens only one way.

As an empowerment force, Jesus always opens to resurrection, even if the path to such life is lined with crucifixion and sacrifice.

But as a liminal gate, as a connection point between two oft opposing categories of existence, Jesus—both person and promise—stands in the middle as our bridge.

That is what the old guardians of the Temple, Simeon and Anna realize and announce as they speak of “a light to enlighten the Gentiles AND the glory of your people Israel.”

It is what Isaiah means when speaking of “the vindication of Zion shining like a torch…AND ‘the nations’ seeing it.”

It is what Paul means when he says that the birth of this child “under the law” redeems those under the law, AND makes former slaves into heirs of the kingdom.

Jesus is the door, the gate, the passageway, the transition point that makes Jews and Gentiles one, that makes rich and poor one, and that converts all sorts of slavery…all sorts of chains and shackles and those who bear the weight of them…into participants in God’s global restoration and reconciliation project.

The question today is: Will you enter in?

Will you claim your identity as child of God, and be empowered by the Holy Spirit to live your life as a witness to the inherent unity of all peoples…searching for ways to affirm our common humanity instead of propagating our false divisions?

Will you use moments of transition, such as this precipice of a new year, to let go of anything that keeps you from embracing your place as a gate and a bridge alongside Christ?

Will you walk through the gate of the sheepfold into the resurrection and the life prepared for all peoples?

As Jesus’ own YES to these questions revealed, your life may not necessarily be easier as a result.

Even Mary’s heart was pierced with a sword of pain because of saying yes.

But by saying yes to who you are, and who we are all called to be as children of God, you are saying yes to a life that will not end once our flesh fails and our bodies go down to the dust.

Because Jesus is also the gate between death and life itself.

It may not be easy, dear people of God, but your yes affects eternity.

Be bold, empowered and encouraged today…once more pass through the gate of the resurrection and the life…and find transformation in the transitions to come.

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