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The Second Sunday after Epiphany

Don’t you all just love stained glass windows? Nothing says “church” all on its own like a stained glass window.
One thing I’ve learned by serving in several historic churches in Brooklyn and Manhattan is that people have a lot of feelings about stained glass windows. And for good reason, I’m sure we’d agree. Stained glass windows are incredible works of art. They are inspiring and beautiful. Some are abstract, windows with various patterns and colors and shapes. Some are figural, with a depiction of a saint or a bible story. All of it leads us into deeper reflection, awe, and wonder.
 I wonder how you would respond if I asked you which of the windows here was your favorite, and why. Maybe it’s the Holy Spirit window – that’s a popular one. Maybe it’s the scene of St. Michael and all angels, depicted over the main altar. Maybe it’s the Hagar window by the baptismal font. Maybe you like the windows here, but your favorite window isn’t at St. Michael’s, it’s at a different church. Maybe your favorite window isn’t the most beautiful or artistically rendered, but one that captured your imagination when you were a child. I can think of a few stained glass windows that I’d love to return to over and over again – figures and shapes and colors I could gaze at and pray with for a long time.
When I was in seminary, I did my field education at Christ Church Philadelphia – the founding fathers’ church, a house of worship with some of the most historic significance in the country. The place that sparked the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Where Benjamin Franklin is buried. I love old, historic places and things – and when I walked into the sanctuary, I thought, “YUCK.” I found it so uninspiring. Colonial boxy architecture, iconoclasm and Puritanical values covering every bland surface, plain wooden floors and even plainer white walls, and worst of all, regular old windows you could see right through to the outside. It felt more like a Quaker meeting house than a church. No gothic arches, no color, no art or beauty.
I wondered, Why would anyone choose a plain window when you could have stained glass?
Our Scripture this morning is all about the call and purpose God has for us, told through the voices of prophets. People whose faith was so convicting and convincing that they risked everything for it. Paul and John the Baptist are both extreme examples – they both risked prison and eventually their very life. These are the people who fill our stained glass windows! We look to them – to their stories, the way they lived their lives, how they responded to God’s call, to be instructive for us, for how each of us responds to God’s call and purpose in our lives.
Quite fitting on a weekend our nation celebrates Martin Luther King, Jr., one of the great prophets of our time, a man who responded to God’s call, what he described as “an inner urge,” to serve God and humanity through ministry. Like many prophets who came before him, he too risked everything – and gave up his life.
These prophets make it onto our stained glass windows, and our Scriptures, and our history books, because they show us some valuable lessons about what it looks like to follow God’s call and embrace God’s purpose.
But that concept, the concept of purpose, is a bit murky, so let’s talk for a moment about what it means.
The author Liz Gilbert identifies the American ideal of purpose and how it’s used in our cultural/ societal narrative.
She says:
“There is a pathological obsession…in this country with making sure that your life has a higher purpose… Just having a life is already pretty amazing. But that’s not good enough. It has to be a purposeful life. So this is the formula that we’ve all been fed … You’ve heard it in every commencement speech. You’ve heard it in every inspirational speech. And it’s: each of you is born with a special gift. Each of you has one unique offering. That’s why you were sent here. To find what that is. The one thing that you can do that literally nobody else can do. It’s your job in life, your purpose to uncover what that thing is. And then once you find it, you must foster it and master it and curate it until you are at the top of that thing that only you can do. And then you must monetize it. Because if you don’t monetize it, you’re not really successful at it. It’s just a hobby. You must monetize it, but it’s not enough to monetize it and be very successful at it. You must be an opportunity creator for other people within this purpose that you created, so that you bring other people, uplift other people with your purpose. And it’s not enough that you uplift other people and you monetize it. You must leave a legacy. You must leave a legacy so that when you are gone, generations after you’re gone, the world is a changed place because you were here. No pressure, but that is literally what you have been taught.”
Hilarious, sad, and so spot on.
Now here’s the rub: what she describes is not the kind of purpose any of us who follow Jesus should be striving for. Yet it’s also true that a purpose for our lives is so deeply faithful. A faithful reading of Scripture tells us most certainly that God creates us for and with purpose. It’s just that for the Christian, this looks a little bit different.
For the Christian, it’s not about our legacy, or how many followers we have, or how much we were able to monetize anything. For the Christian, our example is John the Baptist, who sees Jesus walking toward him and declares, “Here is the Lamb of God.” John the Baptist, who tells his own followers to look over there and see the Son of God. John who raised his voice and pointed, not at himself, but at the Holy One.
Perhaps this is why Martin Luther King Jr is so recognizable as a prophet of our times: he raised his voice and pointed not to himself, but to the justice of God, to the holy truth that all people are equal because God created them, and deserve to be treated with the same dignity.
And today, as we have the rare opportunity to bless a marriage as part of our worship together, we look to the love shared between two people, too, as having divine purpose – because when it’s done right, the prophetic witness of all those called by God, whether it’s the vocation of preaching, or marriage, anything else, doesn’t point to the person but to the greater truth, the higher purpose. To the love of God.
The beginning of my summer at Christ Church Philadelphia only confirmed my hatred of the plain windows in the sanctuary. During the service, tourists waiting for a glimpse of the next stop on their tour could look in and ogle at the worshippers in the pews, as if we might somehow hurry the service along if we knew they were waiting to get in. It was incredibly distracting. But as time went on, I started to notice something. When I got into the pulpit to preach, I could see more than just the gathered congregation. When we said the prayers of the people, I could look out the window and see the world we were praying for. During the Eucharist, I could look at the altar and see a beautiful enormous ginkgo tree waving in the breeze right outside the window, the splendor of creation on full display.
God’s purpose for us is for us not to be stained glass. It is for people’s gaze not to stop at us, but to be able to see God through us.
It is perhaps the most countercultural and egoless thing we can do. It requires boldness and courage and faith. So let us heed 3 lessons learned from our stained glass heroes:
1) A life lived with God’s purpose is invitational. “Arise, my love, and come away.” “Come and see.” One arm is extended outward, inviting others to join you.
2) A life lived with God’s purpose doesn’t stop with you. The other arm is pointing not back at yourself, but to the God you are inviting others to behold with you.
 3) With both arms outstretched, a life lived with God’s purpose is open and accepting of the call God places before us. Thankfully, not all our stained glass heroes were ready and willing. Many were unwilling or otherwise skeptical. But all of them, ultimately, said yes.
So may it be with us. Amen.

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