The greatest of these is love

4th Sunday of Epiphany: Jeremiah 1:4-10; Psalm 71:1-6; 1 Corinthians 13:1-13; Luke 4: 21-30

Today’s epistle is one of the more familiar passages of scripture, where Paul tells us that love is the greatest spiritual gift. When I first saw that this was the reading, I thought, oh, yeah, I know this. No need to think. But as I read it again, I realized that it is a message for all of us. Over the past few weeks, we’ve heard Paul talking about spiritual gifts, and today he tells us that if those gifts, whether speaking in tongues, prophecy, or faith are not exercised with love, they are worthless.

“Love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude”. Uh-oh. I like to think that my faith is anchored in love, and that I show love at all times. But we’re two years into the pandemic, and my love for those who have not been willing to make the small sacrifices to protect others has been sorely tried. No, let me be honest. I am impatient with those who won’t wear masks, and who won’t get vaccinated. I’m arrogant about my choices, and while I’m not rude in public, I am in my head.

Christians have always divided on a range of issues: whether the nature of the Trinity in the 4th century, or the meaning of the Eucharist in the 16th. Today those debates are centered on issues of identity: race, gender and sexuality. Can women preach? Can gays and lesbians be married? Is abortion the greatest sin? What do we owe (if anything) to the descendants of those slaves who built up the wealth of this country, and of many of our churches? Many of these have become not just religious debates, but political ones. It’s complicated, and hard.

Opponents of the ordination of women, or gay people, or of abortion, or reparations have not been precisely loving to those of us who disagree with them. It is difficult to respond to demonization with love. But that is exactly what God is calling us to do. It’s hard work.

Given this, I was grateful for today’s psalm, one of my favorites.

“Be my strong rock, a castle to keep me safe;

you are my crag and my stronghold” (Psalm 71:3).

Whenever I read this, I think of Durham Cathedral in England, perched on a rock above the River Wear. Now they tout the woodland paths along the riverbank, but the walls of the Cathedral were part of Durham Castle; the Bishop had not only religious but political and military power. It was indeed a castle to keep you safe. If we have that strong rock, we may have the courage to love.

Durham Cathedral from the River Wear

Though we are many, we are one body

3 Epiphany: Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10; Psalm 19; 1 Corinthians 12:12-31a; Luke 4:14-21

The beginning of today’s reading from 1 Corinthians offers a radically inclusive vision of the church. We were all baptized into one spirit, Paul tells us, whether we are Jews or Greeks, slaves or free. The rest of the passage uses the metaphor of the body to insist that we are all important, whatever our gifts and whoever we are. There’s a tension, at least for the modern reader, between the insistence on the importance of all, the shared spirit, and the hierarchical vision of both gifts and the body. But the point of one body, while there are, Paul suggests, less respectable and more respectable members, we all depend on each other. Paul says that “the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensible”.

In today’s gospel, Luke tells the story of Jesus preaching in the synagogue where he grew up. Jesus reads from the prophet Isaiah, where Isaiah announced that he brings “good news to the poor . . . release toe the captives and recovery of sight to the blind”. If the reading was familiar, none of his listeners expected him to tell them that “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” It is Jesus’ radical proclamation of the Kingdom of God.

Let the oppressed go free. Proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. We can only help bring Jesus’ proclamation to life if we remember we are one body, and that we depend on all the members of that body. Most of us have at least on member we would rather not depend on, but that’s not our choice! Recognizing the other members of the one body is often hard, but it is our challenge and our task.

Simple Gifts

Isaiah 62:1-5; Psalm 36:5-10; 1 Corinthians 12:1-11; John 2:1-11

“Now there are a variety of gifts, but the same Spirit”. (1 Corinthians 12:4)

Paul’s discourse on spiritual gifts in 1 Corinthians emphasizes that while we are different, with varied gifts, activities, and services, the work we do is for and led by the same Lord, “for the common good”. Paul mentions some gifts: the utterance of wisdom, the utterance of knowledge, faith, healing, working miracles, prophecy, the discernment of spirits, speaking in tongues. These are clearly gifts of the spirit.

Over the years, I have come to expand my understanding of spiritual gifts. After all, no one who has been part of a church community thinks you can get along with just the gifts that Paul lists. These are important, especially teaching and wisdom. But so too is hospitality, generosity of spirit, and willingness to serve. It may not seem spiritual, but the people who stay after a parish pot luck to put away the chairs and take out the trash are demonstrating spiritual gifts of generosity and kindness.

We hear in today’s gospel the story of the wedding at Cana, where Jesus did his first sign, turning water into wine. The working of miracles was one of Jesus’ gifts, along with all the others in Paul’s list. This is the first one he does, and he isn’t exactly eager. It is his mother who grasps the problem of hospitality (it would be a woman, wouldn’t it?), and tells him to act. Although he resists, when she tells the servants to obey him, he does. Like the miracle of loaves and fishes, the wedding at Cana solves a practical problem. What if we saw the fact that our communities functioned as a miracle just as much as turning water into wine? These things are, like the gifts Paul lists, done for the common good.

Churches speak often of gifts, of time, talent, and treasure. But time and talent are not always recognized as spiritual gifts, and, like treasure, seen as meeting the practical needs of the congregation. In the familiar Shaker hymn, “‘Tis the gift to be simple” (Hymnal 1982 #554), we learn that “when we find ourselves in the place just right,/ ’twill be in the valley of love and delight.” One way of recognizing our spiritual gifts is noticing the place that feels “just right”. When we find it, we are indeed in a “valley of love and delight”.

With you I am well pleased

1 Epiphany: Isaiah 43:1-7; Psalm 29; Acts 8:14-17; Luke 3: 15-17, 21-22

Today we celebrate the Baptism of our Lord: when Jesus shows up at the place where John the Baptist is baptizing people. John baptizes him, and then the dove shows up and tells him, “You are my Son, the beloved: with you I am well pleased”. Jesus really hasn’t done anything special, but God is pleased with him nevertheless. This strikes me as something we might all ponder: God can be pleased with us just as we are.

But I’m more interested in the nature of baptism here. The crowds have begun to wonder if John is the Messiah, but he quickly tells them he isn’t. He makes a distinction: he baptizes with water, while the Messiah will baptize with the “Holy Spirit and fire”. A similar distinction between types of baptism is made in the book of Acts: Samaria had accepted the “word of God,” and had been baptized “in the name of the Lord Jesus”. But they had not received the Holy Spirit. Peter and John are sent to pray for them “that they might receive the Holy Spirit”.

This distinction, between baptism in the name of the Lord and receiving the Holy Spirit is interesting. It frames thinking about faith as an ongoing process: we start with being baptized with water, becoming part of the family. That is indeed a singular process. But the rest isn’t. Somewhere along the line, we receive the Holy Spirit. But for me at least, it’s not as dramatic as what is described in Luke. The work of the Holy Spirit is not a one time thing, but an ongoing process. I think I’ve got it figured out, and then something happens, and the Spirit pushes me somewhere new. The Holy Spirit is moving, in our lives and in the world.

Flee to Egypt

Second Sunday of Christmas: Jeremiah 31:7-14; Psalm 84; Ephesians 1:3-6, 15-19a; Matthew 2:13-15, 19-23 (or Matthew 2:1-12, or Luke 2:41-52)

Last week I reflected on how Christmas is shadowed by death and grief. The three kings come, and bring gifts, including the myrrh used to anoint the dead. In today’s gospel, Joseph is told in a dream to take the child and his mother and “flee to Egypt” because Herod wants to destroy the child. Matthew makes this journey seem straightforward: “Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and to to Egypt”. But the journey of the refugee fleeing danger is not, we know, so straightforward. Bethlehem is not right next to Egypt, so it’s not like Joseph, Mary and the baby could just take a stroll and get to a new country.

This is also a journey driven by fear. Herod wants to find the child “to destroy him”. In this 18th century Andean version of the flight into Egypt, you see Herod’s agents killing the children in the background. Over the past 20 years, we have seen many scenes of desperate refugees fleeing war and violence. They have not always received a warm welcome; many are victims of traffickers who take their money but don’t protect them. I wonder about Joseph heading to Egypt: does he encounter danger? Who helps them? Are Joseph and Mary welcomed in Egypt? Or do they face, like so many migrants today, hostility and mistrust?

Anonymous (Andean, 18th century) , The Flight into Egypt | Christie's

(Anonymous, Andean 18th C, “The Flight into Egypt“)