Sunday, December 29, 2019

Christmas 1, 2019-A: A synergy of grace

Lectionary: Isaiah 61:10-62:3; Psalm 147; Galatians 3:23-25; 4:4-7; John 1:1-18

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In today’s gospel, the evangelist speaks of the distinction between the law and grace: The law indeed was given through Moses; “grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.”

The law of Moses was a gift from God that helped the people of God know what to do (and not do) to be in right relationship with God and one another. The gift of God’s own self in Jesus guides us all on how to be: full of grace and truth.

People of all times and all places want to be set free from whatever is oppressing us in our lives. For some, the poverty, hunger, and prisons are real and actual. For others, they are perceived. They experience a poverty of joy or freedom, a hunger for meaning and purpose, prisons of anger, abuse, or addiction. Whether actual or perceived, oppression is real and the outcome is the same: it becomes what occupies our time and attention, and we spend our time surviving rather than living.

As many of you know, I worked in the field of victim advocacy for many years, specifically in the areas of domestic and sexual abuse. As a survivor myself, I can attest to how real this oppression is. I can also share with you how freedom enters this darkness as light.

But first, I want to share with you a paraphrase from a book I recently finished called, “The Invention of Wings” by Sue Monk Kidd. This book is a novel based on true events surrounding the lives of the Grimke sisters from Charleston, SC in the 19th century. Sarah and Angelina Grimke were the daughters of a land-owning, slave-owning judge in Charleston. Members of the elite social circles, the Grimke sisters left behind their privilege and even their religion; moving from being Anglicans to Presbyterians to Quakers as their first-hand experience of slavery led to an increasing intolerance of it. These women were eventually even expelled from the Quaker fold when they insisted that slaves not only be freed but given equal rights. In fact, they promoted equal rights for all people, including women, being among the first to write and speak publicly about women ‘s rights, influencing and sharing friendship with such notables as Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott.

In the novel, Sarah Grimke is struggling against the gender discrimination of her time as she seeks to fulfill her life’s purpose, first as a lawyer, then as a Quaker minister - neither of which she accomplished. A slave girl named Handful, owned by the Grimke family, shares this wisdom with Sarah: “Mama said some of us are slaves in our bodies, others are slaves in our minds. I’m the first kind of slave, but you’re the other.” (paraphrased)

Whether our freedom is stolen by the circumstances of our lives or by our perception doesn’t matter. The end result is the same. Oppression kills the soul.

In every case, freedom happens in community. Freedom enters the darkness of oppression as a hand that reaches down into the darkness to grab and hold onto us and lift us into the light.

When we are set free from what oppresses us, it’s as if we can suddenly breathe deeply the sweet fragrance of life which fills and renews our bodies from the inside; and our vision expands opening before us a plethora of new and exciting possibilities and the courage to run into them.

This is what the writer of today’s gospel is describing: God’s own hand reaching down to us, holding onto us, and lifting us to new life. It’s what Jesus did and it’s what we’re called to do as well.

We have neighbors who are slaves in their bodies and others who are slaves in their minds, as Handful said. It is up to us to be Christ to them - to go into whatever darkness oppresses them and bring them the light of Christ that is in us as a gift from God, a gift given at our Baptism. To be able to do that without stomping further on their freedom (as so many Christians do nowadays) we must first be transformed ourselves.

In the novel, when Handful decided to run away, Sarah tried to stop her. Handful was determined, however, choosing to risk dying or 20 years imprisonment over being a slave for another second. Sarah’s response was classic and illustrates the subtlety of servant ministry. She asked, How can I be of help to you?

Evelyn Underhill was another voice in the 19th century - a mystic, pacifist, and writer who called upon all Christians to be mystics. (Mystic meaning someone who simply finds themselves, places themselves in the presence of God, in direct experience with God). Evelyn called everyone, all Christians, to be mystics. She believed that all Christians would benefit from entering into the presence of God and being transformed by God’s love because as she said, it isn’t just about us.

Underhill said, “As well as the solitude of my soul before God, there is the responsibility of my soul to my fellow-men, as a member of the Mystical Body of Christ… I must in some way show [the]… characteristics of Christ in my life… according to my special call. I am part of the organism through which Christ continues to live in the world.” (The Light of Christ, Morehouse-Barlow Co., p 15)

That is our goal as a community, a church. As you’ve heard me say many times, every church is an intentional action of the Holy Spirit. Each of us has unique gifts and God intentionally draws us into community, bringing these varied gifts together, creating a synergy of grace upon grace, and sending us to testify to the light by our lives and our service to the particular needs present in our corner of God’s garden.

To be able to do that, we must, as St. Paul says in his epistle to the Galatians, we must be transformed ourselves from slaves to daughters and sons of God. We must live the transformation we are called to share. If we are to show [the]… characteristics of Christ in our common life, according to our special call, we must be willing to let go of our plans and open ourselves to ask God and our neighbors: How can we be of help?

Some of you may not know it, but this is the transformed approach our Campus ministry team has taken this year. Rather than making a plan for campus ministry then going to the students at WCU and telling them what program we will offer them, the team went to the students and faculty and told them, “we’re a small church and we don’t have a lot of resources, but we want to use what we have to serve the students. How can we best do that?

Immediately a variety of important needs surfaced, some we could have guessed and some we couldn’t have. We began doing the little things we could do now while we move into the formal development of the program with diocesan support - little things like the exam bags and intentional invitations to the soup suppers where the students’ hunger for home-made food and warm hospitality have been satisfied. Now these same students want to help build the program with us as we proceed.

I hold up this ministry as an example of servanthood that reflects the characteristics of Christ and meets our responsibility as the mystical body of Christ in the world. As we heard in today’s gospel, the law of Moses helped the people of God know what to do (and not do) to be in right relationship with God and one another. But we are children of God, siblings of the Savior who guides us all on how to be, which then reveals to us what we can do.

It’s a tall order, and must be done in community because “being” rather than “doing” means staying flexible, welcoming change (of direction, thinking, and action), and tolerating a certain amount of uncertainty all the time. It means dying to self in order to follow Jesus, who has poured his light into us that it may shine from us into the world.

As we move into this new year, may God’s light shine brightly through us, bringing freedom to us and to all we serve in Christ’s name.


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