Parts of the whole, Epiphany 3 (C) – 2016

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

In many dioceses, this month marks an important time for annual meetings in congregations. At these times, we necessarily focus on “the Church” – how things have been going for the last year and what we plan for the next year. But at such meetings, we also often pause to remind ourselves about what the Church is and what it is not.

A usual starting point is to declare that the place where we worship is not the Church. Rather, this building is a structure in which the Church gathers for solace and pardon and strength and renewal and for inspiration to become more fully what the Church is – the body of Christ.

In today’s Epistle, we received a reminder from St. Paul that all together we, the Church, are, in fact, “the body of Christ and individually members of it.”

We remember, too, that the clergy and the vestry are not the Church. Sunday School teachers are not the Church. Outreach ministers are not the Church. The altar guild, acolytes, and lay readers are not the Church. No one person, no one group, and no one activity can become the Church for us. The Church IS the body of Christ.

The Church is NOT something to belong to. Nevertheless, sometimes people talk about joining the Church like they do about joining the Rotary Club or the PTA or the Boy Scouts or the Girl Scouts. Those who do affiliate with such organizations pay dues to them, attend meetings when they feel like it, and turn in their membership cards when they grow tired of the organization’s activities or become angry at what it does or the changes it makes. The Church, committed to God, is very different, of course. It is – we are – the body of Christ.

Neither is the Church something to watch on television as interested spectators. For us, the Church is participatory. We are necessarily partakers and contributors. We are not like the audience at a concert, but we are like members of the orchestra making the music – God’s music to which we dance in our daily lives, following our Christian values.

We are the body of Christ, and each of us individually is a member of it. But we are not individuals WITHOUT the body – only WITHIN it. In a way, our faith and tradition create a certain conflict with the rugged and independent-minded individualism that has formed so much of the American culture. We are not Christians alone; we are not separate actors choosing our own views without reference to the faith. Always, we are together – parts of the whole. And our congregations, the Church, are part of the body of Christ.

St. Paul drives home this point as he expands his view of the body of Christ by using the image of a human body. He enlightens us with telling examples of its parts – hand, ear, eye, nose, feet, and head. Each has its special function. As we consider what we are as the Church, we do well to remember this. As different parts of a human body make their contributions, each of us finds a particular contribution to the Church, finding a ministry that suits us and complements the others.

And, we expand these ministries beyond the confines of the congregation as we all apply our ministries in making the work of Christ effective in our daily lives for the sake of all around us.

But, we dare not forget to balance these individual roles following another aspect of St. Paul’s analogy. It takes all parts of a human body working together to produce the functioning of a healthy one. We must work together, recognizing the equal importance of all ministries and all members and all people. St. Paul illustrates this in language we can never forget. “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you,’ nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’” Each, he insists, is equally indispensable. All of us, doing our parts, are indispensable.

And, we must also expand this view beyond the confines of the Church. In the broken and fearful and often desperate world in which we live, conflict and contention and extremism and lack of civility on many sides seem to have become the rule instead of the exception. Far too often, people in all sections of our country and of the world choose sides, ascribe to an “us versus them” mentality, and draw lines in the sand. How can we take Paul’s wisdom that no one can say “I have no need of you” and extend it to all people and all places to make this sense of Christ-like unity understood and accepted?

As the body of Christ, we are the activity and the continuing presence of Jesus in the world. We become the Resurrection. The Church is the means by which Christ remains involved in the world. So, we, his body, are Christ’s representatives on earth.

We, the Church, are Christ for others – at work, at home, at school, in the community, and in the life of our congregations.

It might help today to remind ourselves of a teaching from the Outline of Faith, the Catechism, on page 555 of the Prayer Book:

“What is the mission of the Church,” we ask. And we learn that the mission of the Church is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.

When we ask, “How does the Church pursue its mission?” We learn that, “the Church pursues its mission as it prays and worships and proclaims the Gospel, and promotes justice, peace and love.”

And finally, we ask, “Through who does the Church carry out its mission?” And we are reminded that, “The Church carries out its mission through the ministry of all its members.”

The various ministries that we employ as part of the Church allow us to engage in the great mission of the body of Christ, following the challenges that Jesus lays before us. They represent how we actively serve as Christ’s continuing presence in the world.

What our world needs is for us to be the body of Christ. And how we begin to do that might well be found in today’s Gospel. The very first thing Jesus did as he began his ministry was to go into the midst of the community in which he had lived his entire life and declare what the world needed. He did so by reading from the Prophet Isaiah.

How do we, as the continuing body of Christ, in our time and our places do what Jesus read about? How, in word and in action, do we “bring good news to the poor?” How do we, in word and in action, “proclaim relief to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind?” How do we, in word and in action, “let the oppressed go free?”

How do we, in the expression of the catechism, “proclaim the Gospel, and promote justice, peace and love?”

A fearful and anxious world, filled with far too many people who are hungry and oppressed, wounded and hopeless, await an answer from the Church – from us – the body of Christ.

Download the sermon for Epiphany 3C.

Written by The Rev. Ken Kesselus

The Rev. Ken Kesselus is a retired priest living with his wife Toni in his native home of Bastrop, Texas, where he serves as the mayor and writes history book and a column in the local newspaper. He is a former member of the Executive Council of the Episcopal Church and author John E. Hines: Granite on Fire.

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 surprise behind the door, 3 Epiphany (C) – 2010

January 24, 2010

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

A few years back, the Thompsons were invited to celebrate their fortieth wedding anniversary with their oldest daughter. To commemorate the couple’s ruby anniversary, their daughter had invited them to a lovely country club for dinner. When they arrived and opened the big double doors to what they assumed to be the dining room …

Surprise!

Over 200 of their friends and family members were gathered in the grand ballroom to celebrate the occasion with them. There were guests from near and far, marking the many blessings and periods of their lives – brothers and sisters, nieces and nephews, high-school friends, college roommates, colleagues, children, and grandchildren. The evening was filled with stories, toasts, and there was a tremendous outpouring of love. It was a wonderful, love-filled, and unexpected surprise.

Sometimes we encounter God in the most unexpected and surprising ways. Holy scripture is filled with such stories. In the Book of Genesis there is the story of Jacob, whose lies won him the unintentional blessing of his father at the expense of his brother. Jacob is surprised to discover God’s presence through a dream of ladders. Then there’s Abraham and Sarah, who laughed upon hearing God’s intentions for the late-in-life blessing about to be bestowed on them, only to be surprised by the outcome. And Paul, a Pharisee intent on persecuting those who followed Jesus, encountered the risen Christ in a surprise encounter on the road to Damascus and was converted. Holy Scripture is filled with stories that tell of the surprising ways of God.

The lectionary readings for this Sunday contain several messages about surprises. In this morning’s letter from Paul to the Corinthians, we hear the familiar metaphor of the human body for the body of Christ, the Church.

J. Ted Blakely, in “A Lector’s Guide and Commentary,” explains the context of this passage from First Corinthians. He writes:

“Paul is speaking to Christians who consider certain spiritual gifts to be greater than others, with the result that those who exercise the so-called greater gifts are afforded greater honor, prestige and privilege than those who exercise the so-called lesser gifts.”

Paul’s implication is that in the Body of Christ, all people with their varied spiritual gifts are equally valuable.

Several years ago there was a recently widowed woman who was very grateful to the church and pastor who had held the burial service for her late husband. She went to see the pastor and expressed her desire to give back, but told him that her finances and, by her own estimation, her abilities were limited. They spoke about her late husband’s service, and in the process, she shared how challenging it was for her to host and coordinate the meal that followed the service at her home.

The two then hit upon an idea. What if the church was to coordinate, and prepare when necessary, a meal in the church hall following burial services? Today, as a result of this conversation several years ago, that congregation has a new church hall, a state-of-the art kitchen, and an entire team of people – mostly widowed – who volunteer their time to provide meals following burials and funerals, both for the church community and for the wider community. It is a financially self-supporting ministry that has helped many during a time of great need. The founding member was surprised at the result, as she never dreamed that God could have used her gift of hospitality in that way.

We are the body of Christ, each of us with a different, sometimes not readily apparent spiritual gift to give. It is essential that we remain open to God’s ability to shape us in surprising ways throughout our lives, for the good of God’s Kingdom. Each and every one of us has a gift to give, and we mustn’t let fear, modesty, or doubt stand in the way. And it is important that we look for, affirm, and encourage the gifts we see in others. After all, we are all part of Christ’s body.

Today’s gospel reading also contains a message about surprise. In this reading we hear the story of Jesus, returning to the place where he was raised. He enters the synagogue, and begins reading from the scroll:

“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.”

The eyes of all are upon him as rolls up the scroll, hands it to the attendant, and begins to teach. “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” This story continues with Jesus’ teaching, and the listener’s eventual angry response.

William Barclay, in his commentary on the Gospel of Luke, explains that what must have angered those in the synagogue was that here was “this young Jesus, who they all knew, preaching as if the gentiles were specially favored by God. It was beginning to dawn on them that there were things in this new message the like of which they had never dreamed.”

For us, today’s listeners, this gospel reading holds a message about remaining open to the word of God, and how surprising it may be. We can remain open by reading a passage from holy scripture every day. Even if we have read a passage many times before, it is amazing upon re-reading it how it can appear to have a new message for us, or how we can see something that we have never seen before.

We can also read from and pray with “Forward Day by Day,” the free quarterly devotional journal offered by Forward Movement Publications, which allows us to hear the voices, interpretations, and reflections of a variety of contributors – new voices that might offer surprising interpretations that challenges us to grow in our Christian faith.

And we can remain open by attending church services and Bible studies with ears and hearts that are ready to listen and learn. Remembering that we are formed as Christians throughout our lives, and being active in the process, can help us to grow in and remain open to the word of God.

God surprised Jacob, Abraham and Sarah, and Paul. And God surprises us. During this season of Epiphany, the season when we commemorate the three gentile magi’s surprising recognition of Jesus as King of the Jews, let us hold fast to the hope of God’s ability to surprise us in our lives. Few people will journey through life without learning the painful lesson that life can change very quickly in sometimes devastating ways. This Epiphany, let us hold fast to the Christian hope that life can also change in magnificently transformative and wonderful ways just as quickly.

God can change our lives through using our gifts in ways we might not imagine. God can change our lives by opening us to new understandings through holy scripture. And God can change our lives in ways that we might not even be able to imagine at this moment.

So, like the Thompsons, who opened the door expecting to find a restaurant of strangers but discovered over 200 friends and family gathered in love, this Epiphany let us greet each day with the hopeful and Christian expectation that God is ready to bring about new and surprising developments in our life for the good of the Kingdom. It is time to open that door.

 

— The Rev. Suzanne E. Watson has worked at the Episcopal Church Center in New York for over three year in the areas of strategic planning and collaboration, Center direction, and small church ministries. She has also served in congregations in New Zealand and Carmel, California. She is a graduate of the Church Divinity School of the Pacific and a proud mum of three teens and a tween.

Listen with understanding, 3 Epiphany (C) – 2007

January 21, 2007

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

On this, the third Sunday after Epiphany, we are presented with images of two public readings from the law and the prophets. These images are highly dramatic, and in visualizing them, we need to also feel some of the emotion of the context in which they were read and some of the excitement of the persons listening to the reading.

In the Book of Nehemiah, which appears only twice in our lectionary, Ezra, the scribe, is reading aloud from the Mosaic law to the returned exiles who are gathering at the Water Gate in Jerusalem. He read from early morning to midday, the book tells us, and the listeners included both men and women. The writer emphasizes repeatedly that the people heard with understanding, and that the readings were interpreted for them, from the ancient written language to the spoken contemporary language they could understand.

At a time when the Bible has become an idol for so many of our compatriots, this note is important – listening with understanding. Referring to the Bible as the ultimate truth without knowing what is in it, how it was written, who wrote the various books, under what circumstances, without being aware of the context of each story, does no honor to our beloved Scriptures. We cannot allow words to enslave us; we must pray that their truth will liberate us. To cling to a verse in order to defend a position that justifies our personal bias and prejudice is tantamount to idolatry.

In Nehemiah’s time, the people hear the law and they weep. They are so deeply moved to hear again what they consider their legacy from Moses that they fall on their faces to worship the Lord and they continue weeping. But the scribes and priests and their governor, Nehemiah, remind them that this is a holy day and a cause for joy and celebration and for sharing with those who have nothing. It is too bad that the 12th verse is not included in this first lesson because it is significant: “And all the people went their way to eat and drink and to send portions and to make great rejoicing, because they had understood the words that were declared to them.”

This is the first image from today’s readings. The second comes several centuries later. The people are no longer exiles but they are under the yoke of the Romans. Their longing for Messiah has not abated. They do the customary thing and go to the synagogue to hear the prophets and the law read to them. The location this time is Nazareth. Jesus has been baptized by John, has called his disciples to his ministry, and has wrestled mightily with the tempter in the desert. Triumphant after defeating the temptations of earthly power, of easy miracles and magic, he returns home to Nazareth. He knows who he is and what his mission from God is. He also knows that the people hearing him remember him as the son of their own Mary, of Joseph the carpenter, the brother of several men and women who live in their midst. With the assurance of a prophet, he chooses to read from Isaiah, those powerful, familiar passages of the Servant Song. He proclaims his mission, here in the town where he grew up: he has come for the poor, the captives, the blind, the oppressed.

The categories fit the poor people of Nazareth as they fit the poor people of captive Palestine under the Romans and their collaborators among of the higher clergy. It is an electrifying moment when he says, “Today, this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Twenty centuries later these words cause cold chills to run up and down the spines of those of us who understand their import. What must it have felt like to hear them from the mouth of the one who was convinced of his mission to the poor and the oppressed?

At first the listeners are complimentary: How well he speaks! And he is one of our own!

But Jesus, as will be made clear throughout his ministry, does not flatter, does not give the people only what they want to hear, but challenges their closest-held beliefs. He finds that he cannot do miracles in his hometown. The people’s doubts, suspicions, and lack of faith form a wall that even he cannot break through. He tells them that they are not the only ones who are chosen by God – that certain ancient prophets ignored the chosen in order to heal specific individuals, foreigners, who, though not of the house of Judah, were people of faith nonetheless. Jesus’ listeners don’t like this turn in the lesson. They revel in their choseness by God. How dare he doubt their righteousness? A moment ago they were praising him; now they are ready to do him harm. Having foreigners, non-Jews, included under God’s mercy is not welcome to their ears. It somehow insults their own righteousness.

Jesus, the supreme master at laying bare the subtle sins of the human heart, continues to challenge us today as he did his own people on that first day in Nazareth. What are our own assumptions about the scriptures?

The passage from Isaiah that Jesus makes his own is not only the ministry of our Lord on this earth but also the mission of the church. Our presiding bishop keeps emphasizing the mission we are called to do in the world. How liberating it would be in this season of Epiphany to focus on the mission to the poor, the captives, the blind, the oppressed instead of arguing about interpretation of certain biblical passages.

Both Nehemiah and Jesus call us powerfully today to listen with understanding. And St. Paul urges us, together with the Corinthians, not to break up the Body of Christ. “But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.”

Amen.

 

— Katerina K. Whitley is an author and retreat reader. For more on her books and presentations, visit http://www.katerinawhitley.net or e-mail katewhitley@charter.net.