A Face, Searched out and Known – Br. Sean Glenn

Psalm 139:1—5, 12—17

From the time I first encountered it in earnest, this season of the church year has always spoken to me of identity. In particular, the play between the way we see our identities and the way God sees our identities.

On January 6, the Church kept the Feast of the Epiphany of Our Lord Jesus Christ, celebrating the manifestation of God to the world in Jesus. As she did, she called to mind (at least in the western rites) the story of the visit of the Magi to the infant Jesus. A story about an identity: the fullness of God’s identity, present in the frailty of a defenseless, dependent child.

As she kept the Feast of the Baptism of Christ on the Sunday that followed, she recalled yet another story about identity: the human identity into which God desired to be baptized in the flesh of Jesus beneath the waters of the Jordan River. The humanity into which Righteousness itself was pleased to be plunged and drowned. The humanity with which, by that act, God became unmistakably and eternally bound.

These two feasts are recognized in the lectionary as solemnities. They can sometimes pass us by in the daze that follows the whirlwind of Chistmastide, but they frontload the season of Epiphany with these themes of identity. I find it a grace that the lectionary does this in this way. And this year in particular. For as the Church celebrated the display of God’s presence in the world before the Gentile Magi on January 6, her eyes beheld a different kind of epiphany as violence swept through the Capitol. It was an epiphany of the very brokenness and division into which God deigned to be submerged.

In the days that have passed, the depths of the divisions that welled up into an outpouring of anger and violence in Washington on January 6 by ordinary people—doctors, teachers, CEOs, nurses—have only seemed to calcify. History begs us to be clear eyed: we have come to the edge of a very real precipice.

The days and months ahead will likely not be easy. For when the last vaccine has been administered, when the last livelihood that was taken away is restored, we will still have to find a way to live with one another in this night of disunion; as a nation, as a neighborhood, as a work place, as a family, as a church. This epiphany of our shared sickness begs us to ask ourselves uncomfortable questions about our own motivations, about the parts we as individuals play in the sowing of mistrust and misunderstanding, about our desire to have our righteousness settled by worldly judgment, our own failures of charity. We will have to meet God and one another as the broken creatures we are, not the righteous heroes we think we are.

I remember a time in my own life (not so long ago) when the reality of my own misplaced self-righteousness broke upon me with some force—an episode that revealed a facet within the darkness of my own character—and of the Good News God breathed into that frightening revelation. I had just moved into the community as a postulant and, about five weeks in, made a visit to my family in Seattle. One evening an argument broke out between my younger brother and me. As the rest of the week transpired, I became consumed by the face I had seen reflected back to me as I had argued with him. And I did not like the man I saw.

This moment elicited a very real crisis of vocation—a moment when the reality of God’s call seemed to be in conflict with the darker things I was learning about myself. How could I go back to the monastery now? How could I be called to this vocation if it was also clear that I was so weak, so broken, so self-righteous? And so the last night of my stay, having packed up for the flight back to Boston, I finally picked up the prayer book that had been staring at me from the table where I had abandoned it days before. With some resentment about the whole idea of praying at all, I flipped open the psalter to a random page.

Or so I thought. As these words greeted me, something in me shifted. Lord, you have searched me out and known me. You know my sitting down and my rising up; you discern my thoughts from afar. You trace my journeys and my resting places and are acquainted with all my ways. Indeed, there is not a word on my lips, but you, O Lord, know it all together.[2] In the face of a revelation that scandalized the picture I had of myself, God spoke an even greater scandal into my heart. “I know who you are, Sean. I have searched you out and known you. There is not a word on your lips, but I know it altogether. I know why you said what you said; nothing about you is hidden from me. I knew all of this when I called you. I long for you any way. Like Nathaniel, come and see the man I see. Like the young Samuel, a stranger to my voice, come and listen to the words I will speak into the darkness of your unknowing. My saving purpose for them was just was real for them as it is for you. Look at me. Take my hand.”

As our culture continues to grapple with the brokenness of our shared humanity, as we continue to learn just how much we need God’s grace, mercy, and aid, the Church is invited to speak this scandal of divine love into the fractures of our world—a world God loves so much that he was willing to enter into the dereliction of our shared blindness and irrational hatreds. By entering into that fractious humanity—a humanity God has searched out and known, a humanity whose inmost parts God fashions day by day—God pledged himself to us where we are, not where we would prefer to be. By drowning himself in the river of our brokenness, God has given us strength by his Spirit to take his hand and walk forward in the darkness of our own unknowing; unknowing about the world, the future, ourselves.

In the end only God knows what truly motivates any one of us to act. And in the cross of Jesus, as the human face of God prays forgiveness for those nailing him naked to the dead tree, we see the ultimate depth of a love I don’t think any one of us can begin to comprehend on our own terms. I certainly know I cannot. But that is why I am grateful for the limitations of the lectionary places on us as preachers. For while I know that my heart this day is full of darkness and frustration and anger at the epiphany unfolding before us, the lectionary forces the Church to speak a different word. Not a word of the judgment that weighed so heavily on me that night in Seattle; not a word of my anxiety that my own blind spots somehow contributed to this unraveling of our common life. But instead a word of the scandalous love of God that seeks us out, reaching forth a hand to guide us, teach us, and heal us.

And so I end this morning with the words of a poem quoted by King George VI at the end of his 1939 Christmas speech, which was broadcast to the people of Britain via radio as the darkness of another world war descended upon the earth; words with which I invite you to pray in the days and weeks ahead:

And I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year:
“Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.”
And he replied:
“Go out into the darkness
and put your hand into the Hand of God.
That shall be to you better than light
and safer than a known way.
[3]


The Second Sunday after the Epiphany

[1] Psalm 139:10—12

[2] Palm 139:1—3

[3] Minnie Louise Haskins, “God Knows”

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9 Comments

  1. Pedro on January 19, 2022 at 01:57

    Thank you very much for sharing, Brother Sean. I believe we have to find a way to, at the same time, love our neighbor and make sure we keep our American democracy.

  2. carol carlson on January 15, 2022 at 12:43

    It’s always those who actually are on the side of the angels in societal conflicts who need to fear the dangers of self-righteousness. Thanks for the timely reminder, Br. Sean. Reinhold Neibuhr’s wonderful book of ‘sermonic essays’, ‘Discerning the Signs of the Times’ echoes these sentiments; and his prayer (which I couldn’t find to quote exactly) says, in effect, ‘Help us to fight their unrighteousness with our righteousness – and help us to fight the unrighteousness IN our righteousness.’ Good words for a broken society, in which ‘dialogue’ is, strictly, impossible between fundamentally different spiritual and moral ‘languages’. We still have to live with each other – somehow – and ourselves.

  3. SRD on January 15, 2022 at 12:01

    Much to ponder. Grateful to re- read this today. Thank you. And the poem is extraordinary. Accepting the life we are living, the life that is unfolding, sometimes so difficult to accomplish…

  4. Debby Hunter Mills on January 15, 2022 at 09:44

    What a wonderful sermon!! “A word of the scandalous love of God that seeks us out, reaching forth a hand to guide us, teach us, and heal us.”

  5. Cameron on January 15, 2022 at 09:07

    Br. Sean, Thank you so much for this penetrating and thought-provoking sermon. I appreciate the juxtaposition of the two epiphanies we experienced on January 6, 2021. May your courage in relating your personal example inspire us to do the hard but necessary work of confronting our personal and collective darkness. The poem at the close also underscores the necessary role that darkness plays in our ongoing journey into trust and faith. I read the words of the brothers every morning. So thankful for all you do at SSJE to keep us good company in these unsettling times.

  6. Betsy Smith on January 15, 2022 at 09:03

    Thank you for sharing something from your own story! It helps us to understand how we all struggle to be the person God created us to be. Thankfully, He does not give up on us!!

  7. Bobbi on January 15, 2022 at 08:10

    Br, Sean, Your honesty helps me to keep faithful and hopeful during those times when I lose humility and let arrogance take over.
    Thank you for the prayer by King George VI. May it give all you brothers solace as you deal in very personal ways with Covid.

  8. Anne Clift Boris on January 15, 2022 at 07:11

    Thank you.

  9. William Cadmus on January 22, 2021 at 07:40

    Wonderful and blessed reminders of a God that continually seeks us out and desires good for all His children.

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