Archives for January 2013

Sin, like ashes in our eyes, 1 Lent (C) – 2013

February 17, 2013

Deuteronomy 26:1-11; Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16; Romans 10:8b-13; Luke 4:1-13

The ashes are gone – washed off our foreheads – but their darkness still stains our thoughts and spirits as we begin Lent once again. Tiny grains of ash, like the darkness of sin, may have fallen in our eyes or down our faces. Annoyed, we may have rubbed our eyes or brushed our cheeks. Maybe the ash was wet – a big stain on our heads, right between our eyes. How can we get it off, without looking insincere, before we get in our cars and go to work out in the real world where most people don’t even know it’s Ash Wednesday, where most people no longer remember the word “Lent” or what it means?

Sin is like that most days, a bit of an annoyance, a speck in our eyes that must be rubbed away. For heaven’s sake, we don’t want to talk about it – it’s annoying – oh my, that word again. Being reminded that sin still exists in each one of us can be just plain annoying, not earth-shattering, nothing really to worry about, it’s just there hovering around the edges, picking at us, especially during Lent.

We have 40 long days to think about it, though. Forty long days when we’re reminded to repent and be saved. Our hymns are melancholy. In many churches, they hide a banner with the word “Alleluia” on it until Easter Day.

Is that what Lent is all about? A surface look at it, a few memories from Sunday school in our youth, a desire to get it over with and get back to the real world, might make it so. But look at our readings today. If we really pay attention to what we’re hearing, there is a whole lot more light than darkness – a whole lot more graciousness poured on us by our God, than punishment. Yes, we’re reminded about the temptations of sin, but we’re offered the unstopping gift of forgiveness and a chance to model Jesus. Lent can help us go deep into ourselves.

Moses’ story today is full of light. God has given the Israelites a land flowing with milk and honey. All they have to do is show gratitude through their offerings. “A land flowing with milk and honey” is an image of peace and beauty. The people acknowledged their rescue from the Egyptians by the God who heard their cries of affliction.

Today’s psalm says, “He shall call upon me, and I will answer him; I am with him in trouble; I will rescue him and bring him to honor.” This is another image that should remind us that God continues to hear our cries, even when they’re moaned from the depths of our sinfulness. At the beginning of Lent, we’re reminded that we are not alone. God not only has not abandoned us, God is “so bound to us in love” the psalm says, that even when we are focused only on ourselves to the point of sin, God is with us, ready to bring us back to the light. God is ready to brush the ash from our faces.

Paul says the same thing to the Romans. “The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart.” That is not only the word of faith, but the capital W “Word” of God. “You will be saved,” he says, “everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved.” Is there any better news than that?

Paul does put in front of us, however, one type of sin we may need to think about during Lent – because after all, this good news of salvation is reliant on the fact that we actually want to repent and return to the Lord. Paul drops in a very salient fact: There is no distinction between Jew and Greek, the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. This speaks to us of God’s inclusion of all people – no exceptions. We might need to examine ourselves to determine how much we really want to include all others.

Is that part of the ash that has fallen in our eyes? We might need help getting that out. We might need to read over and over again Jesus’ words all through the gospels that call us to love even our enemies. “Our enemies?” we might want to ask. It’s hard enough to love our own families sometimes.

But if that ash is left in our eye, it could fester and make us blind – blind to our responsibility to share God’s love with everyone. This is a good time to remember that for the Jews, “love” doesn’t mean the Valentine’s-Day-card emotional kind of love. Love, when Jesus talks about it, also means “loyalty.” We don’t have to agree with everyone to love them. We don’t have to have emotional love for the person or group doing evil. “Loyalty” means we acknowledge that these too are children of God and need our prayers. They need us to want them to see the light, not for us to judge them as worthy only for hell.

Even Jesus didn’t send his tempter immediately to hell in our gospel story. Isn’t it interesting that Jesus only responds to the temptations by reminding his tempter that God alone is worthy of our worship and service? There was no argument, no discussion: God alone is our refuge and our stronghold in times of trial.

The three temptations are interesting in themselves. Would it have been so wrong if Jesus just turned a few stones to bread? Certainly, there’s no sin in that. What is Luke really telling us? Perhaps, that we might be tempted to want to manipulate the world to our liking. That can grow into the serious sin, for example, of not caring where our food comes from, or the environment from which it grew. Do we care enough about those who grow the food we eventually buy in our stores to make deliberate choices about where we shop?

Jesus’ second temptation might make us think about what we feel we must own. What in our lifestyles comes before our consideration of God? If we’re honest, many things can draw our eyes away from God – things that, in and of themselves, are not bad, but things, such as that annoying speck of ash that fell in our eyes, that might fester in us until we can see nothing else.

The gospel reminds us that Jesus, too, was faced with temptations. He was, after all, fully human as well as fully divine. He knows what we face. He knows the power that tries to turn our hearts from God. Our ashes remind us of the same thing, but today we hear about God’s great love for us. We’re reminded even more about the fact that we abide under the shadow of the Almighty. We, too, have been promised a land flowing with milk and honey.

There is a lot to be joyful about in Lent. After all, Paul tells us, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”

 

— The Rev. Dr. Susanna Metz is vicar of Petrockstowe in the Torridge Team, Diocese of Exeter, North Devon, England, and is the publisher of Tuesday Morning, a quarterly journal focused on lectionary-based preaching and ministry.

Letting the mask fall, Ash Wednesday (A,B,C) – 2013

February 13, 2013

Joel 2:1-2, 12-17 or Isaiah 58:1-12; Psalm 103 or 103:8-14; 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10; Matthew 6:1-6,16-21

Christians are hypocrites. That is the word on the street about us, demonstrated in survey after survey. A prime example is a landmark study by the Barna Group, which found 85 percent of young people outside the church surveyed agree that Christianity is hypocritical. Even when they asked only youth who attend church, 47 percent still agreed that Christians are hypocritical.

Jesus’ clear words of warning on this Ash Wednesday, repeated three times, are that we are not to be like the hypocrites with regards our almsgiving, prayer and fasting. When Jesus says “hypocrite,” this was the common term for an actor. In the theatre, actors pretend to be someone they are not, and so it is a natural extension to describe as an actor anyone whose outward actions don’t match the content of their heart.

In classical Greek theater, actors wore masks to portray characters. And it was in this dramatic tradition of Aristophanes and Xenophon that the word “hypocrite” came to be the word for an actor. Actors spoke behind a mask, and the audience could not read the emotions of the actor on his face. In time, as all realized that we can wear masks figuratively as well as literally, the term “hypocrite” came to be used, as Jesus does here, for someone who says one thing and does another. The inner character does not match the mask.

We all wear masks, and it should be noted that this is not always bad. Bank tellers and grocery store clerks and even priests don’t always need to reveal every inner thought on their faces as they work. Putting on a brave face to visit someone in the hospital for whom you have grave concerns is a good thing. And who would want a doctor whose uncertainties over a diagnosis came through at the bedside? Better to put on the mask of professional confidence with a patient and then go consult colleagues and revisit research to make sure you’ve got it right. Wearing a mask is not all bad in and of itself. Perhaps the problem with a mask depends more on who you are trying to fool and why.

The mask to which Jesus takes exception in our gospel reading is a mask turned toward God. And there is no sense pretending with God. God knows that you don’t have your act together. God knows the bad thoughts behind the pleasant persona. God knows the confused motives behind the seemingly innocent remark or gesture. God not only knows the real you, God loves the you that lives behind the mask.

So Jesus warns that there is simply no point in going out in public to show others your faith. Do not blow trumpets announcing your gift to the synagogue or pray out loud standing on a street corner or make yourself look dismal so that everyone knows that you are fasting. Jesus states clearly that his followers are to give to the needy, pray and fast, but these actions are between the disciple and God alone. Acts of piety and are not a show we put on for the benefit of others. As Jesus says three times, it is your Father who sees in secret that will reward you. This makes it clear that outward acts done to impress others don’t make one holy. Outward acts done for show can, at best, make you appear holier than thou, which is the opposite of holy, just or righteous.

The scripture reading is, of course, intended to be at odds with the liturgical actions of this day. For on Ash Wednesday, we can head to work with an ashen cross on our foreheads as an outward sign of our worship this day. Together with Good Friday, this is one of two fast days for the church. So when Jesus warns that we are not to disfigure our faces to show others we are fasting, yet we head to church to put ashes on our foreheads, there is a disconnect. The choice of reading this gospel and the lesson from Joel in which the prophet says, “Rend your hearts and not your garments” are both counseling us to pay more attention to the content of our hearts as we enter this season of preparation for Easter. Do not worry about the outward actions, so much as the you behind the mask.

It is only natural that Christians are seen as hypocrites. We say we want to live like Jesus, and yet we go around acting little different, if at all, from those who are not Christians. We have a high ideal and we fall short of that mark. The answer is not to wear a mask showing the world that we have our acts together. What Jesus says clearly is to not be like the hypocrites at all. Don’t worry about the public face you put on. Concern yourself with God’s view of you rather than other people’s.

This is the perfect place to let the mask go. Part of every Eucharist is designed to let the mask slip before approaching the altar. The confession of sin is the time when, having already considered the person you are behind the mask, you offer up all your pretensions, all your bad thoughts, wrong motives and evil desires. Confession is the time for letting go of some of the baggage you carry around, in thought word and deed, in things done and left undone. Having laid aside the mask that could separate us from God, we then approach to be nourished once more by the One who knows us fully and loves us anyway.

For the personal baggage is what leads to the unhealthy use of a mask. You never could be that daughter your father wanted you to be. You never quite measured up as a son for your mom, compared to your siblings or to her ideal. You never quite got it all together the way you hoped you might, and so you wear a mask that tries to cover the real insecurities hiding just below the surface. If people knew the real you, you think, they wouldn’t like what they saw.

All of these messages are wrong, as each of them misses the point that you are a child of God, fearfully and wonderfully made. Of course you have fallen short of the mark set by God. And yes, you do need to repent and return to God. But you don’t need the mask. Not with God.

In the words of the prophet Joel, God is telling us, “Yet even now, says the Lord, return to me with all your heart.” What would happen if your mask slipped to the floor? When it comes to letting go of pretensions and getting real with God, there is no time like the present.

 

— The Rev. Frank Logue is the Canon to the Ordinary for the Diocese of Georgia. He blogs about Congregational Development at http://loosecanon.georgiaepiscopal.org.

To be sent out, Last Sunday After the Epiphany / World Mission Sunday (C) – 2013

February 10, 2013

Exodus 34:29-35; Psalm 99; 2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2; Luke 9:28-36, (37-43a)

Today, the last Sunday of Epiphany, is recognized every year as World Mission Sunday around the Episcopal Church.

The word “mission” comes from the Latin verb mittere “to be sent out”; mission is about being sent out. But what are we being sent out to do, and where are we expected to go?

The mission that we are all called into as Christians is the mission of God. This mission is most succinctly articulated in our Baptismal Covenant and in particular the last two questions of the covenant:

“Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?”
“Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?”

To which we declare, “I will, with God’s help.”

These two simple promises are excellent guides as we reflect upon what God is calling us to do, and how we should faithfully respond.

We are an incarnational church. When we internalize the understanding that God has created all humanity in God’s image and that we are all sisters and brothers in Christ, it is impossible to pass by somebody in need without feeling the call to respond. It is much easier to ignore suffering around the world when it is happening far away and when we do not feel connected to the people who are suffering. But when we sense a connection, when we realize that the person who is suffering is part of who we are, flesh of our own flesh, bone of our own bone, then the visceral desire to respond is much greater.

And yet we are all connected. At the beginning of time and from the beginning of scripture, we were all created from the same single point, which is God’s love. We are all children of God, and we are all created in God’s image.

Within all of scripture, both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, there is a thread that describes how humanity has separated itself from God and from one another, and at various times in our history how humanity has moved back toward God and to one another through the witness of prophets and later through the incarnation of the Son of God into this world. The mission of God is fundamentally about this journey of reconciliation; the mission into which we are called to participate is God’s mission of reconciliation, reconciliation with God and reconciliation with one another. This is the essence of God’s call for us.

In the book “Les Miserables,” Victor Hugo writes, “To love another person is to see the face of God.” One could add that when we look into the eyes of another, especially one who is suffering, we also see the face of God. When we interact with others, when we honesty desire to nurture a relationship with another, then we feel an imperative to respond to their needs as they are drawn to respond to our needs. An important aspect in our response to God’s mission is that we are called to be in a mutual relationship with one another. Remember that in our baptismal vows we declare that we will strive to respect the dignity of every human being. We cannot respect the dignity of another if the relationship is one sided.

Since the beginning of time, people have responded to God’s love in different ways. Missionaries have travelled to all corners of the earth sharing the Good News of Christ to those who had not heard. Missionaries brought education and healthcare, they have healed the sick, clothed the naked, visited the prisoners, fed the hungry and built homes for those without shelter.

There have been those throughout history who have sacrificed good-paying jobs, a comfortable lifestyle and even their lives as they respond to God’s call to seek and serve Christ in all people. There still continues to be people who respond to God’s call by living across cultural, linguistic and economic boundaries as missionaries of the church.

We have young adults who give a year of their lives to work around the world in service. They work in the mountain province of the Philippines; they work with migrant workers in Hong Kong; they support a mission hospital in rural Lesotho, Africa; they are teaching music in Haiti; they are providing support for the social outreach of the Church of Southern Africa. Our missionaries in the Young Adult Service Corps program are making a real difference in the regions where they work.

We also have missionaries that serve for longer periods of time, developing programs and gaining a deep understanding of the language and culture as they share their gifts and skills to support our partners in the Anglican Communion around the world as doctors and nurses, as educators, as accountants and web designers, as administrators and advocates.

In more recent years we have seen the growth of short-term mission, with parishes and dioceses across the Episcopal Church engaging in mission and developing and nurturing relationships with sisters and brothers around the Anglican Communion. This development has provided an opportunity for many people to learn more about our neighbors far away, to learn how God is working in their lives and to respond to human need in a meaningful way.

Responding to people’s physical needs is very natural, and Jesus calls us to do it. But we should never forget that our first call is to be in relationship with others and to respond to God’s call for reconciliation. We are called to listen to one another’s stories.

After the terrible devastation caused by Hurricane Sandy in the New York area at the end of October 2012, many church groups sent teams to help clean up. One particular group worked hard all day, cleaning houses, washing down fungus-encrusted walls and throwing out trash. An elderly woman who was helped was so proud of her neighborhood that she insisted the mission team should come and see the local park. Perhaps one of the most meaningful encounters of the day was when one of the group, a young teenager, went with this woman to visit the park and to listen to her story. For 15 minutes he gave her his full attention, a time for her to share her joy amidst the sadness of the loss of her home, and time for both of them to see Christ in the other.

We are not all called to travel across continents or to visit prisoners, but we are all called to love our neighbor as ourselves. Having faith in our own faith, trusting in God, as Paul states in Corinthians, “We have such a hope, we act with great boldness.” We should have that boldness that comes from the realization that we are all children of God and that God loves us all more than we can ask or imagine. Whatever we do, God will always be there with us, God will always love us and God’s arms are wrapped tightly around us.

“Doing” is important, but “being” is the very essence of mission. We are called to share the physical gifts that we have with others, and the disparity of wealth in this country and around the world is a tragedy that we should be addressing unceasingly. However, reminding others that they are loved and that they are not forgotten is also important and reaches to the very core of what God is calling us to do.

Whether we are helping in a food pantry in our local community, participating in mission trips across the world, or living amongst another culture for many years, it is the love for the other that is at the very core mission.

One missionary said that the best advice he ever received as a young priest was that he should always “love the people”; and that is what we are all called to do.

What are we sent out to do, and where do we go?

As Christians we are sent out to love God and to love one another, and we are sent out to the whole world. We are sent out to be with our neighbor down the street and our neighbor around the world.

 

— The Rev. David Copley is the Episcopal Church’s officer for Mission Personnel and team leader for the Global Partnerships Office. He was a missionary in Liberia and Bolivia and priest in the Diocese of Southern Virginia before accepting his current position.

Putting God’s expectations above our own, 4 Epiphany (C) – 2013

February 3, 2013

Jeremiah 1:4-10; Psalm 71:1-6; 1 Corinthians 12:1-13; Luke 4:21-30

Lottery winners. Have you ever met one? It is quite an exciting thing when a lottery winner is from your hometown, bought his ticket from your favorite corner store, or is a member of your family. It’s as if you get to share in their good fortune just by being near them. Of course they would want to give away some of their substantial blessing to you because you went to high school together or opened the door of a restaurant for them once or are their cousin. You are proud of this person until you find out that they aren’t planning on sharing anything with you. Or maybe they are sharing a little bit, but are giving more to another person or charity. Then what?

A March 30, 2012 online article from the publication International Business Times provides two cautionary tales about people who struck it rich: Jack Whittaker of West Virginia won the lottery and then had two relatives and his daughter’s boyfriend die. He also had a number of lawsuits filed against him and blames it all on the win. Another winner, Jeffrey Dampier, was 26 years old when he won the Illinois lottery. He was then kidnapped and murdered by his sister-in-law and her boyfriend in hopes that they would receive the winnings after his death.

One person’s fortune can turn another into a jealous, scheming, sometimes tortured mess. This doesn’t just go for lottery winners, but also for any kind of joy that another has. Your co-worker gets the promotion you’ve been striving for. The couple next door has no trouble getting pregnant while you and your spouse have been trying for years. Your friend gets on the varsity team that you desperately wanted to be on to and you didn’t. We can’t help but berate the other person in our minds and close our hearts off to shared joy or a widened vision of blessing. It’s human nature and it is difficult to combat.

When Jesus came to his hometown of Nazareth and began to teach, the local Jewish community was quite proud of him. After all, they had heard of the things that he had done at Capernaum and were convinced that he was some sort of prophet from God. They believed that Jesus had just won the lottery, so to speak, and was about to shower them with God’s favor because, after all, he was one of them, so of course that is what he would do. Besides, they agreed with what he was saying – at least at first. But as long as they were pleased, they were proud and they wanted to preen in the light of special favor from God.

Then Jesus starts talking about the blessing going not to those in his midst, but further abroad, to gentiles. He uses stories of Elijah and Elisha where God healed and included people that were not part of the usual fold. He teaches that God’s liberation is more inclusive and abundant than the exclusive covenant that the people in the synagogue believed God had with them. With this, everything changes.

It is interesting how the mind can turn quickly when we do not agree with someone. We may feel that a priest, a CEO, a political leader, a teacher or a friend is wonderful until they say or do something that isn’t exactly what we believe. Then we are shocked or angry. After all, we like to congregate with like-minded people because it feels good to be part of a group that we understand and that we think understands us as well. When someone who we feel belongs to us says something contrary or challenges the current status, we are often quick to turn on him or her. It is one thing for an outsider to say or do something divergent, but a whole other game when it is one of our own.

This is where we find Jesus in our gospel story today. When the unheard-of inclusiveness of Jesus’ message became clear to those in his home congregation, their commitment to their own community and the boundaries they erected overtook the joy that they initially had in receiving a prophet of God in their midst. They were blinded by indignation and did not want to believe that God’s grace is not subject to our lists of who is in and who is out. It cannot be tamed by our human desire to be special. Often, this very grace scandalizes us so much that we are simply unable to receive it for ourselves. Thus begins a vicious cycle: if we are unable to receive such grace, how, then, can we share it with others? We cannot.

This is the cautionary tale that we receive from those at Jesus’ hometown synagogue. They were so focused on what they believed God’s blessing should look like – just for them – that they missed the opportunity of grace that Jesus was bearing. The gospel says that they “were filled with rage” and “drove him out of town.” How dare Jesus tell them who should be included? How dare Jesus tell us?

Part of becoming a maturing Christian is learning how to put our boundaries and expectations aside in order to listen to what God’s are. This is difficult work and it is lifelong. In our epistle reading today, the Apostle Paul is encouraging the churches in Corinth to love in the radical way that Jesus teaches. They are enmeshed in conflict around what spiritual gifts are the greatest. To help them understand, Paul writes to them of love and spiritual maturity. He likens the growth of our hearts to the growth in our life cycle, “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways.” We know that when we are children, we have a narrow view of the world. It is always about us and what is in our immediate vicinity. As we grow into adulthood and experience more of life, we understand how big the world is. As we mature as Christians, we understand more fully what grace is, and it continues to widen our hearts through love.

Being a Christian isn’t easy. Neither Jesus nor Paul ever tell us that it is. It requires things of us, as it says in our Book of Common Prayer’s Catechism: “The duty of all Christians is to follow Christ; to come together week by week for corporate worship; and to work, pray, and give for the spread of the kingdom of God.” This is a full-time job that shapes our lives. It calls us to live, to die to ourselves and be resurrected with Jesus over and over and over again. With each time, our hearts get a little wider, we know grace that much more deeply, and we are able to follow Jesus a little bit more down the road of love.

When Jesus speaks to his hometown synagogue, he’s speaking to our hometown church, too. Paul echoes Jesus’ message, “And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.” What does God’s love look like in your church? Open the ears of your heart to listen for it, and walk in grace to find out.

 

— The Rev. Danáe Ashley is priest-in-charge of St. Edward the Confessor Episcopal Church in Wayzata, Minn.

Jesus’ mission statement, 3 Epiphany (C) – 2013

January 27, 2013

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

Today’s gospel presents us with Jesus’ first act of public ministry, described for us in Luke’s gospel. Following his river baptism and his long wilderness fast and temptation, Jesus returns to his home country, Galilee. Reports about him have been spreading through the population, probably the result of his healing miracles and his synagogue teaching.

So when he comes back home, it’s quite a big day in the synagogue. Everybody’s there, eager to hear the local boy who’s making such a name for himself.

Jesus enters the synagogue on that Sabbath morning. It seems smaller than it looked when he was a child, but otherwise nothing about this familiar place has changed.

Joseph and Mary prepared him well for life. They raised him faithfully in their ancestral religion. He regularly attended Sabbath school and youth group; they brought him to the synagogue every week – as a baby, a child, a teenager.

It wasn’t always easy, especially when he was a baby. And so Joseph and Mary must be patron saints for all the parents now who bring their babies to worship, who make sure their children get to church school, who see their sons and daughters belong to youth group. It’s not easy. But these parents know that the child who participates regularly in the community of God’s people is likely to have a strong faith in adulthood and a firm foundation during every crisis of life.

So Jesus returns to the Nazareth synagogue, thankful for the upbringing he received there. He is asked to read the lesson from the prophets. There is no lectionary to consult to determine this reading; the choice is up to him. Nor is there a book to flip through. Instead, a bulky scroll is brought to him and placed upon the lectern. Jesus, searching for a familiar text, unrolls it to a place near the end of the scroll. In a voice strong with anticipation, he reads aloud these words:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Finished with this brief passage, Jesus rolls up the scroll, returns it to the attendant, and takes his seat.

It is the custom for teachers to sit, rather than to stand, so when Jesus sits, everyone looks at him, expecting some commentary, some explication of this text, a text well known to many of them.

There are no professional clergy. The synagogue president can invite any appropriate person to comment on the text. Often these remarks are less than inspiring. While the people are biblically literate, commentary on scripture by such speakers is often no more than rote recitation of lessons all of them learned at an early age. So the congregation usually knows what will be said before it is said, and the only question is whether it will be said correctly or not.

Not so today when Jesus sits down. The people are all looking at him. He looks around at them, those familiar faces from his early years, older in appearance than before: his childhood friends, now present with their children; the parents of his friends, now senior citizens.

He begins with a zinger, and something much more than a zinger – a sentence that remains fresh and provocative down to our own time. Jesus sets free the scripture passage he has just read; he lets the lion out of its cage; he overthrows the ho-hum expectations of the people around him. Here is what he says: Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.

Jesus does the unexpected, the unimaginable, on that memorable Sabbath morning in Nazareth. In today’s jargon, he claims those ancient prophetic words as his own personal mission statement. The reason God’s Spirit came crashing down on him at his baptism was to empower him to do precisely this: bring good news to the poor, release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind; let all the oppressed go free; announce the sweet Jubilee Year when God’s justice will reshape society.

Jesus takes all this as his mission statement, and he is not content to leave it as only a string of high-sounding words. Everything that follows in his life, as presented to us in the gospel, amounts to the living out of the prophecy he claims for himself that Sabbath morning in Nazareth.

He keeps doing these things every chance he gets, every time he turns around, until finally it kills him. Some people welcome what Jesus does, but others do not because it upsets their unfair advantage, questions their complacency, and pushes them to recognize their habitual infidelity to God. They find their discomfort increasingly intolerable and think that his judicial murder will bring an end to the matter. They are wrong, of course. Jesus rises alive from the dead and continues today to do what he talked about that Sabbath morning long ago.

Now the way he works is through his mystical body, the church. Through each of us and all who are baptized into his body, Jesus strives still to live out his mission statement, bringing good news to those who don’t have any, setting free those chained in captivity, opening blind eyes, helping the oppressed and exploited find a life, and unrolling the floor plan that sets out God’s reign where justice and peace prevail.

Jesus still does these things, because his church does them. The poor gain hope, whether it’s their souls or their bodies that are starved. The captives experience freedom, whether they are prisoners in a jail or prisoners in a mansion. The blind receive sight, whether it’s cataract surgery at the church hospital or the scales of prejudice falling off the eyes of a bigot. The oppressed are set free, whether oppression is a political regime or a chemical dependence. When Jesus reads that passage in the Nazareth synagogue, he announces a mission statement for himself and for his body, the church.

Today’s reading from First Corinthians is another important passage about how the Body of Christ, the church, is to live out the mission statement of Jesus. As we strive to keep faithful to those words Jesus read aloud and lived out, we can pay attention to three points that St. Paul insists on in that passage.

Number One: All members of the church have gifts for ministry.

Number Two. The members of the church have different gifts for ministry; we are not clones of each other.

Number Three. The different gifts come to life in the context of the whole.

Jesus read the old words from Isaiah and claimed them for his own. We can do the same. Please stand and repeat after me, sentence by sentence:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon us.

The Spirit of the Lord has anointed us to bring good news to the poor.
The Spirit of the Lord has sent us to proclaim release to the captives.
The Spirit of the Lord has sent us to help the blind recover their sight.
The Spirit of the Lord has sent us to free the oppressed.
The Spirit of the Lord has sent us to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

Today, this scripture has been fulfilled in our hearing. Amen.

 

— The Rev. Charles Hoffacker is an Episcopal priest and writer. He is the author of “A Matter of Life and Death: Preaching at Funerals“ (Cowley Publications, 2003).

 

The Epiphany: Jesus’ hour, 2 Epiphany (C) – 2013

January 20, 2013

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

In this charming and exhilarating story, Jesus is the protagonist but says very little – only three short sentences – yet the whole story is filled with the light of his Epiphany.

The account unfolds before us as images instead of narration. A wedding celebration is taking place and, as was the custom, the wedding is part of a feast. This is obviously a well-to-do family, perhaps the leading family in Cana, a small Galilean village. The first things the writer tells us is that Jesus’ mother is present at this joyous affair. Mary must have been a good friend of the bride’s family, and since the feast is given by the bride’s father, she is an invited guest; later, the bridegroom will take the new bride away from her family and she will belong to his family from then on. So here we are presented with the picture of a wealthy family entertaining the people of the village together with some special friends such as Mary of Nazareth from another village. As a result, the father must have invited Mary’s son also, already on his way to becoming famous in the vicinity. But not quite yet. Jesus comes to the feast together with the new friends he has very recently called to himself, the group that will come to be known as his disciples.

The party must have been unfolding with much good cheer since they quickly ran out of wine. And now something very strange is recorded. The hosts run out of wine, but it is the mother of Jesus who goes to her own son and reports this: “They have run out of wine.” She doesn’t ask for anything, but the “do something about it” seems to be implied, because Jesus understands much more than she says. “Why should that concerns us?” Jesus asks her. More specifically, he asks, “Why should it concern you and me?” And then his next sentence reveals that his mother indeed is not just informing him; she is asking much more of him than just giving a report on the state of the feast. For he says, “My hour has not yet come.” These words, to those of us who know the story and have read John’s gospel, bring chills up and down the spine. “My hour has not yet come.” This sentence, in various forms and on different occasions, will be repeated by the writer John six more times, each one rising in drama until the last one leads to his death. “My hour has now come.”

Why does he say, “My hour has not yet come,” to his mother at this time? What has she already seen in her son that makes her sure that he can affect the production of wine? What happened during the previous 30 years that made this expectation for her, his mother, natural? This child of hers who had arrived under such dramatic predictions and such heavenly presences, had chosen to stay with the family for a very long time, as children did in those years. But now something is changing and she knows it. John doesn’t mention anything about Jesus’ birth in his gospel, so when he records the words of this event, we are beginning to assume that the mother does know something that shall soon be revealed to the rest of us.

She doesn’t take Jesus’ words to her as a no. She goes to the servants and says, “Do whatever he tells you.” This Scene Number Two in the wedding drama is just as baffling as Jesus’ words have been. His words are: “My time has not yet come.” Her words are: “Do whatever he tells you.”

Jesus up to then does not act as if the hour for his self-revelation has come. How does his mother suspect that the hour is indeed at hand? Jesus is so connected to his Father in heaven that he ignores his earthly mother in this instance. He waits for God, not Mary, to reveal this hour.

Apparently, the answer from above is also yes. The time for the first sign of who he really is has arrived. He says to the servants to fill with water the large jars that stand at the entrance of the house ready for the household’s purification rituals. It is clear that these jars are used only for water. The servants must have thought: What is he doing? Is he going to fool the guests somehow? But who are we to question important guests? So they do as they are told.

And now the peculiar play continues. Scene Number Three. It must have taken quite a bit of time to fill the jars up. After all, they had no running water; they had to go to the well to draw it, and that’s a lengthy process. When the jars are full, the servants hear the next step in the drama that is unfolding. Jesus tells them: “Now draw some out of the jars and take it to the chief steward,” the man who is responsible for the approval and serving of the wine. The servants must be mystified. They know that the jars contain water, but now they see that the water has color; it looks different from what they had drawn from the well. What is going on here? We had better wait for the steward to discover it, they think. No need for us to get into trouble.

In the ritual manner of the wine steward, the man takes the beaker and tastes the liquid. His eyes must have shown his surprise. This is good stuff, we can hear him saying while looking at the servants as if they are somehow responsible.

Scene Number Four. He goes to the host and offers a mild criticism. The man has served at many feasts and banquets and knows his wine. He tells the host: you have saved the best for the last. This is not done. First you offer the best wine and then, when they are too drunk to notice, you offer the inferior wine; that’s how it’s done. You have reversed a time-honored tradition. We are not told what the host thought or said.

The scene ends there. We are left to fill in the blanks. What John tells us is that the disciples – newly chosen, newly called – believed in Jesus as a result of this Epiphany. What John emphasizes is that this is the first sign that reveals that God’s presence is unhindered within Jesus: This is his glory. On an ordinary day when two young people are married, as they have done through the ages, a young man from Nazareth reveals that he has creative powers that can affect even nature. An Epiphany for us and for him. An uncovering that allows light to shine into a long creative process. An uncovering that shows us that his hour has come.

This is not magic. This is the true connection to the Creator. Every Epiphany is a moment of creation, even for us. Let us allow the Light to shine for us and through us to lead us to reveal God’s power to the weak, God’s love for the neglected, God’s mercy for all us, sinners.

Above all, let us pray for an Epiphany that reveals to us who Jesus Christ really is.

 

— Katerina Whitley lives and writes in Louisville, Ky. She is a retreat leader and the author of five biblical books and a Greek cookbook.