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“)

Incarnation

First Sunday after Christmas: Isaiah 61:10-62:3; Galatians 3:23-25; 4:4-7; John 1:1-18; Psalm 147 or 147:13-21 OR 1 Samuel 2:18-20, 26  • Psalm 148  • Colossians 3:12-17  • Luke 2:41-52

There are two sets of readings for today (different versions of the lectionary) and I had written on the one we didn’t use before I realized my mistake! So this will be a bit disjointed, but I didn’t want to lose what I’d thought about this afternoon.

The beginning of the Gospel of John is a text of mystery: the sentences don’t entirely make sense. But the central point, that God came and lived among us. From him we have received “grace upon grace”, “grace and truth”. But this grace is only possible because, as John puts it, “the Word became flesh”. In the midst of the mystery of John’s text is Jesus’ humanity.

Christmas is, like Easter, a time when we are confronted with Jesus’ humanity. But at Christmas, we also see Christ as part of a family, connected to parents and neighbors. It is not accidental that most of the readings that make me giggle focus on this part of Jesus’ life. The Gospel of Luke today pushes us twelve years ahead from where we were yesterday. You can read it several ways: the gospel presents this as a sign of Jesus’ precocious wisdom, though his ministry is 18 years away.

I read this account from the perspective of Mary and Joseph. It’s hard to be a parent to God’s son, and the rules are not at all clear. They are evidently a pious family, heading to Jerusalem every year for Passover. This time, we have a slightly rebellious tween staying behind to ask questions and engage with the teachers in Jerusalem. His parents are worried: they had traveled a whole day from Jerusalem, and have to go back to find him. It takes three days to find him. Most parents I know would be extremely anxious about this. You can hear Jesus’ response, “Didn’t you know that I must be in my Father’s house” as a sign of piety, but I’ve known enough 12 year olds in my life to hear it also as the voice of a child trying to claim independence, even if not quite ready for it. Like most 12 year olds, Jesus knows more than his parents.

Our secular Christmas celebrations are all happy and celebratory, but Jesus’ death is never far away in our readings. For the feast of Holy Innocents on Tuesday, we learn of Joseph, Mary and Jesus fleeing as refugees to Egypt, while all the children under two in Bethlehem were slaughtered. The gifts of the wise men include myrrh, used to anoint the dead. And today’s reading takes place at Passover in Jerusalem, the time of year and the place where Jesus will be killed by the Roman state. We are not allowed to forget pain and sorrow while we celebrate.

One of my favorite prayers comes from Evening Prayer II

Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work, or watch, or weep this night, and give your angels charge over those who sleep. Tend the sick, Lord Christ; give rest to the weary, bless the dying, soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted, shield the joyous; and all for your love’s sake.

Book of Common Prayer, p. 124

Many years ago, this was prayed for me when I told my reading group that I was engaged. We always hope we can shield the joyous. But we cannot do so forever. We celebrate, as we do at Christmas. This year we are reminded, maybe more vividly than in other years, and that death is a part of life.

Rejoice in the Lord always

Third Sunday in Advent: Zephaniah 3:14-20; Canticle 9: Isaiah 12:2-6; Philippians 4:-4-7; Luke 3:7-18

“Sing aloud, O daughter of Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart.” What a great way to start listening to the readings! We move on to Paul, telling us to “Rejoice in the Lord always”. We are told that if, “by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving” offer our requests to God, “the peace of God which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus”. This is a promise.

But don’t get too comfortable: we move from Paul’s promise to John’s preaching to the crowds. “You brood of vipers!” I can’t say that this is the most welcoming message I can imagine. It doesn’t invite you to feel good about yourself. And yet John is surrounded by crowds, evidently people who understand their need for a baptism of repentance, to change their minds, and their lives. And that change is not necessarily big: if you have two coats, give one away; if you have extra food, share. You don’t need to leave your job, even if you are a soldier or tax collector, just don’t take advantage of your position to exploit or extort others.

We have to repent, to change our minds and lives, to get to where we can, with Paul, rejoice in the Lord always. What John and Paul leave out is the way that this is something I at least need to do over and over. There’s a reason I am relieved that we say the confession every week. I get distracted by the world, and need to shift my focus back to Jesus. When I do, I can once again rejoice in the Lord, and sing with all my heart.

Changing our minds

2 Advent: Baruch 5:1-9; Canticle 16 (Luke 1:68-79); Philippians 1:3-11; Luke 3:1-6

Advent is a time of waiting, and waiting for change. But the readings today focus more on the change. In Baruch, we are called to “Take off the garment of your sorrow and affliction, O Jerusalem, and put on forever the beauty of the glory from God.” The image is concrete: we need to be dressed to celebrate. Baruch tells Jerusalem to rejoice that God has remembered them. “For God has ordered that every high mountain and the everlasting hills be made low and the valleys filled up, to make level ground, so that Israel may walk safely in the glory of God.” What a promise: that God will smooth the ground to make your way safe! Luke refers back to that promise at the end of today’s gospel, seeking to create continuity between Jesus and the salvation history of Israel.

In the gospel, we also hear about John, preaching “a baptism of repentance”. Yesterday I read an essay by Professor Brittney Cooper, a Black feminist scholar, on repentance. It was part of a series in The Christian Century on “how I changed my mind”, and the title was “Why I came back around to repentance“. Cooper suggests that we should think of repentance not as cataloguing and confessing sins big and small, but changing our minds, as we get rid of ideas that separate us from God. “What if”, she asks, “at base, our faith practices were about a willingness to change our minds in ways that allowed us to bend more easily toward love, justice, mercy, and grace?”

The season of Advent is a season of waiting for change. We think of the change as the birth of Jesus. John preached a baptism of repentance. I have always understood sin as that which separates us from God, and repentance as bringing us back to God. If we understand this as a season of changing our minds, it moves our focus to how we, as a community of Christians, can collectively let go of ideas and actions that harm us and others, and follow God in trying to make “the crooked straight, and the rough ways smooth”. When we do that, we will be on the road to justice and love. And we will be ready to welcome Jesus into our lives.

Waiting

Today’s readings: Jeremiah 33:14-16; Psalm 25:1-9; 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13; Luke 21:25-36

It’s the first Sunday of Advent, the start of the liturgical year. But instead of parties and shouts of “Happy New Year,” the church starts the year with anxious waiting. Advent is not quite penitential, but it is filled with a combination of hope and fear. In the Gospel, Jesus talks about “the signs in the sun, the moon and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves.” He goes on to look forward to the time when Heaven and Earth will pass away, and warns us to be ready for that day. Not a very happy message, but one that resonates with many of us, facing climate change and its impact on the world we live in, never mind a pandemic that has been going on for almost two years now. The earth is sending us messages. But between wars, famines, droughts, and earthquakes, such messages have been heard at many times and in many places. Not surprisingly, the apocalyptic writings of scripture have been among preachers’ greatest hits fairly regularly over the last 2000 years! We live in a world where things go wrong, and people suffer. The end of that might not be a bad thing.

If Luke warns us to be ready for all the terrible things that will happen before Jesus comes again, I found myself drawn more to the words of Jeremiah, where he describes the world that God will bring, when God “will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel”. Jeremiah reminds us why we might look forward to that. When the “righteous Branch” of David comes, “he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety.” This is the world we want to live in. As the US continues its long racial reckoning, and the Sunday after the murderers of Ahmaud Arbery were found guilty, it is good to remember that justice brings safety.

The psalmist is not concerned with the coming of a new world, but offers us a path. He asks to be taught — “Lead me in your truth and teach me”. We’re told that the Lod’s “compassion and love . . . are from everlasting”. And he asks the Lord, as we all must, to “Remember not the sins of my youth and my transgressions; remember me according to your love.” The psalm offers reassurance that “All the paths of the Lord are love and faithfulness to those who keep his covenant and his testimonies.”

I am glad that we get to Luke’s warnings after we have heard from Jeremiah and the Psalmist. They put justice and love at the center. Building a world of justice and righteousness, we have learned over thousands of years, is not easy. But movements toward justice have often come from what felt like end times. The warnings that Luke offers and the promise that Jeremiah gives us are necessarily intertwined. I don’t know what it means to be ready for the “Son of Man coming in a cloud”, but if that is what it takes to get to the world of justice, righteousness and safety, I will do my best, like the psalmist, to follow the Lord’s paths.

Christ the King

“My kingdom is not from this world”, Jesus tells Pilate in today’s gospel (John 18:36). This Sunday, the last in the church year, is commonly known as “Christ the King Sunday”, or “The Reign of Christ”. If Jesus’ kingdom is not from this world, what does it mean in this world? In the epistle, taken from Revelation, we’re told that Jesus is “ruler of the kings of the earth” (Revelation 1:5). In our first reading, the last words of David, we are told that “One who rules over people justly, ruling in the fear of God, is like the light of morning, like the sun rising on a cloudless morning, gleaming from the rain on the grassy land” (2 Samuel 23:3-4). All this talking about kings and kingship is a bit strange for those of us living in a republic founded on the rejection of kings!

I’m not sure I know what to think about Christ’s kingdom: it’s not from this world, but this world is the only one I know. The multiple metaphors around the idea of Christ’s kingship suggest it’s one that many have struggled over. When I read about the light of the morning, I know it is a kingdom I wish for. It is simultaneously not from this world, but one we seek to build in this world. So today I have no bright ideas, just a question to ponder. What does it mean for you that Christ is King, that we are living in the reign of Christ? What do you differently because of that? How can we feel the light of morning? What are we doing to build the kingdom?

Making a spectacle

In today’s Hebrew scripture, we hear the story of Hannah (1 Samuel 1:4-20). Hannah is much loved by her husband Elkanah, but she has no children: “the Lord had closed her womb”. Her husband’s other wife, Peninnah, had “sons and daughters”, and taunts Hannah with her childlessness. Hannah, we’re told, grieves her childlessness. The account in scripture suggests very messy family dynamics, as Hannah is apparently the favorite wife, even though she was childless.

Hannah goes to the temple to pray, “deeply distressed”. She is watched by the priest Eli as she prays silently and weeps, and he asks her “How long will you make a drunken spectacle of yourself?” When she tells him she is not drunk, but praying from “anxiety and vexation”, he asks the God of Israel to grant her petition. And so it is: the story tells us that she and Elkanah worshiped before the Lord, went back to their house, and that Elkanah “knew his wife Hannah”. She conceived and bore a son, Samuel.

I am intrigued by Eli’s initial reaction, his concern that Hannah is making a spectacle of herself. She’s altogether too emotional in her prayer. Is Eli a closet Episcopalian? I’m uncomfortable with people who make a big deal about their faith. Like many Episcopalians, I’m not big on extemporaneous emotional prayer! Yet when we pray from our hearts, sometimes it is emotional. If we’re sharing with God our deepest joys, longings, fears, and griefs, there should be emotion. Maybe it’s time for me, like Eli, to better value the prayer that comes from the heart. And even make a spectacle of myself!

When I read the scriptures for today, I was struck that we have spent the last few weeks with women who need or want to bear a child. Ruth and Naomi are widowed; without a husband and a child, their place is uncertain. When Ruth bears a child to Boaz, Naomi helps raise him; they are safe. Ruth’s son is the father of Jesse, who is the father of David. Hannah’s position is more secure, loved as she is by her husband, but she longs for a child, and may feel that her long term security depends on bearing one. Again and again, we are reminded that God’s purposes are effected through the birth of children. As we hear Jesus, at the end of today’s Gospel, talking about the “birthpangs” of the new creation, his metaphor reflected the very real importance of bearing children in his society.