Sermon, Feb. 6

Our readings today are a messy hybrid of a couple of things. We read the Isaiah lesson and the Gospel for the fifth Sunday in Epiphany, but we also read the story of the presentation of Christ, the Gospel for the feast of Candlemas.

Candlemas falls on February 2nd, just like Groundhog Day. February 2nd falls not quite halfway between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. Both Groundhog Day and Candlemas are holidays of getting through the winter, in the parts of the world that are cold and dark right now. Groundhog Day celebrates the unlikely premise that signs of spring might start to show up, within the next six weeks! Candlemas is a festival of light; we bless candles in a custom that probably deep down has an element of sympathetic magic, of calling the Sun back. 

Candlemas is not celebrated on a Sunday in most churches, but there is a Candlemas story of our patronal saint, Dunstan. So we celebrate it here. Because something even a little bit special in early February can be welcome!… 

Let’s hear that story now, and then I’ll say a little more about the threads that tie all this together… 

It was wintertime in the year 910, over a thousand years ago. And it was a cold, stormy night, in the region around Glastonbury, in southwestern England. Still, the people of the town streamed into the church, because it was the holy feast of Candlemas. They brought candles to be blessed in the service, the candles that would light their homes in dark winter weeks ahead. 

Among the crowd that night was a young woman named Cynethrith. She was married and was expecting a child. She was a woman of great faith and piety, and she prayed daily that her child would help her country and her people. Because people were struggling not only with the long, hard winter, but also because they lived in a time of violence, poverty, sickness, corruption, and unjust rulers. 

Cynethrith crowded into the dark and drafty church with everyone else, and joined in the prayers and the songs and the lighting of candles. Suddenly a great storm wind shook the church; it rushed among the people and put out all the candles, every one. Nobody had matches or lighters in those days! To re-light the fires, somebody would have to run through the storm to the nearest cottage, where there would be a fire burning in the hearth.

The church was in total darkness. Adults cried out. Children wept. The priest begged everyone to stay calm. But then, suddenly, there was light again. The light of a single candle – the candle held by Cynethrith. Everyone stared in wonder.  Cynethrith’s candle had kindled a flame, from nothing. She shared that holy and mysterious flame to her neighbors, and they to theirs,  and so the whole church was lit again, and all was well. 

The lighting of Cynethrith’s candle was a sign of what her child would become: Saint Dunstan, monk, friend of kings, founder of monasteries, and Archbishop of Canterbury, a leader who would share and spread Christ’s light in difficult times. It was a sign, too, of her own role, as the mother of a saint, kindling God’s light in her son’s heart. 

In all these texts and stories – Isaiah, the Presentation Gospel, the calling of Peter, Cynethrith’s candle – I notice a strong theme of vocation.

Vocation is word that has a regular meaning and a churchy meaning. In daily life, people might use it interchangeably with “career” – a thing somebody trained to do, and does for most of their life. In the church, when we use “vocation,” we try to remember that the word comes from the word “call.” Your vocation is what God calls you to do. The apostle Paul has been reminding us that there are lots of kinds of vocations, lots of ways God calls people to use their gifts and skills, time and their passion, for God’s purposes and the common good. 

Your vocation might or might not be the same as what you get paid to do; for most people it isn’t. It might look obviously like faith- or God-work or it might not; for most people it doesn’t. It might be a big part of your life, or it might be something that fits in around the edges. It might be the same for most of your life, or it might change in different chapters; you might have to do some prayerful discernment about it, now and then. 

Isaiah’s vocation was the big, obviously God-y kind. In this story of his call to prophetic ministry, he sees a vision of God upon the divine throne, surrounded by angels; and he cries out in dismay, feeling unworthy. Then he hears God saying, “Whom shall I send?” – and responds: “Here I am; send me!” 

The angel touching Isaiah’s lips with a burning coal is described an act of cleansing. But it also fits the character of Isaiah’s prophetic work. Isaiah’s vocation is to speak God’s words to God’s people – and his burning message is neither comforting nor welcome. 

In the next few verses, God more or less tells Isaiah that the leaders and people will not heed Isaiah’s words; they won’t repent and change their unjust and faithless ways; and all of this is going to end with death, destruction, and exile. 

But Isaiah’s call to prophetic ministry still matters. Like the climate scientists and public heath officials of our times, he’s called to proclaim what’s happening and why – and how it could be otherwise – even if the people seem unwilling or unable to collectively act for change. 

Even if those in power are too invested in things as they are to make courageous and costly changes. And eventually, Isaiah’s prophetic vocation will involve comfort and encouragement for those who survive that season of crisis, and become the renewed people of God. 

Simon Peter reacts to Jesus’ call much as Isaiah does: I’m not worthy! With an undertone, perhaps, of, Please let me just keep living my ordinary life!  Jesus tells him, Don’t be afraid – and invites him into a new vocation: catching people instead of fish, gathering people into fellowship in the way of Jesus. Peter follows this call, first as a disciple, one of Jesus’ inner circle of close friends, and then as an important leader in the early church. 

Peter’s impulse to stick with the fish is understandable – especially when we know the rest of his story. His time with Jesus is rich and beautiful and confusing and frightening – culminating in watching his friend be crucified, then the confusion of the empty tomb, then a renewal of call on a quiet morning beach. 

Texts from the early church indicate that Peter was executed for his faith in Jesus, probably in the year 64, by the emperor Nero.

In contrast with Isaiah and Peter, who were probably young men, our two Candlemas stories focus on the vocation of babies: Jesus, the Light of revelation to all nations, and Dunstan, still in the womb, but destined to share God’s light in his time and place as well. 

Let it be noted that both of these were challenging vocations! Jesus lives out his mission in the face of rising opposition that leads to his death.

Dunstan, in contrast, lives to be nearly 80 – quite an accomplishment in 10th century England. But he has some near misses along the way. His agenda of making life more fair and livable for ordinary people, and reforming the church so that faith was more accessible and meaningful instead of just another tool of power, – that work often put him at odds with other leaders. He had to flee the country or go into hiding on several occasions. 

Scripture and church practice tend to hold up the big dramatic stories of people whose whole lives were committed to following God’s ways  against stark opposition. People who were persecuted or even killed for speaking God’s words or doing God’s work. People like Isaiah and Jesus, Peter and Dunstan. 

But I notice some other vocations, in these stories. Some other people who are also following God’s holy call in their lives. Consider Simeon and Anna – holy elders. Simeon’s call was to wait and watch for the consolation of Israel. Such a beautiful phrase! Put another way: Simeon’s vocation was to hold hope. To keep on believing that however things might seem, God’s people were not abandoned or forgotten. 

Sometimes a community needs people like that. Bearers of hope. In seasons when it’s hard to be hopeful, we need someone among us who has the capacity to keep looking for the consolation of God’s people. Someone who can stubbornly believe that all is not lost. 

And then there’s Anna – named as a prophet. Perhaps hers was a vocation of prayer, of conversation with God, speaking and listening. I bet she watched the people coming into the Temple, day in and day out. I bet she prayed for them, holding them in God’s light in her heart. 

Simeon and Anna’s reaction to the infant Jesus – their recognition of hope and redemption in this six-week-old baby – is a sign of Jesus’ specialness. He is not like any other baby. 

But part of me secretly wants to believe that EVERY time a young couple brought their baby to the temple to dedicate them to God, Simeon would grab the child and says, THIS CHILD – God is going to work in the world through THIS CHILD! And Anna would start telling anyone who would listen about how beloved and beautiful and important THIS baby is. 

I love Simeon and Anna so much, and I see their faces in many of the faces of this congregation. Loving and faithful and prayerful, and eager to love and encourage our youngest members in their lives of faith. 

And let’s not forget Mary and Joseph, and Cynethrith too – and the ordinary, holy vocation of being one of a child’s faithful grownups, whether you’re a parent or not. Being one of the people who tries, in amongst the chaos and busy-ness and exhaustion and all the the other things that have to be taught and learned, to raise young people who love all that is true and noble, just and pure, lovable and gracious. 

There are so many vocations! That’s one reason why we’re doing these Epiphany Commissionings in this season – to hold up the varied ways we use our gifts and skills, time and passion for God’s purposes and the common good. So far we’ve prayed for all involved with education and the pursuit of knowledge; for those who are in transition, seeking or discerning; for those engaged in business and commerce. Today we’ll pray for those engaged in expressive and creative work, and in the weeks ahead we’ll pray for public servants, caregivers, and the retired. I hope that just about everybody finds themselves in there somewhere – maybe several times! 

Let these commissioning prayers today, and throughout this season, be our response to these holy stories… our affirmation of our own, and one another’s, rich variety of vocations. And may we really mean it when we pledge one another our prayers, encouragement, and support. 

Let’s continue with today’s Commissioning! …