Sunday, January 28, 2024

Epiphany 4, Annual Meeting, 2024: Discerning our path

Lectionary: Deuteronomy 18:15-20; Psalm 111; 1 Corinthians 8:1-13; Mark 1:21-28 

The question we continually face as Christians is whether something is of God, from God, or in the will of God. How do we know if a prophet is sent to us by God? How do we know if a decision we make as a church or for ourselves is the one God wants us to make?

The answer is: discernment because discernment puts God at the center of our decisions and actions. It is up to us to know the Good News of salvation in Jesus Christ and discern how God is leading us to make it manifest in our time.

Today, after this service, we will gather for our Annual Parish Meeting to review our decisions and actions from last year and deepen our bonds of friendship as we move forward as one body, one spirit in Christ into 2024.

It’s tempting for a church to rely on the gifts that serve us well in the world, and that isn’t a bad thing. Those gifts are from God who draws them into our faith community.

For a church, however, there is more to consider, the will of God, to be specific. Otherwise, we slowly and almost imperceptibly turn our church into an earthly enterprise and the guidance we end up relying on is our own.

The way to stay on our path of faithfulness is to discern continually who we are, what gifts God is bringing among us, how those gifts can be nurtured and employed in order to glorify God, serve God’s people, and be stewards of God’s creation. This is what sets us apart as church: our goals are not focused on us but on God.

I’ve been serving as a priest for almost 20 years now, and I can attest that this church is on a faithful path. When we worship together, we are truly giving thanks with our whole hearts in the assembly of the congregation, as our psalmist says. Our ministries include listening for how we can further ease the burdens of our neighbors while also working to transform the oppressive systems that continue to harm them.

We do this by sticking close to our roots: the Bible, worship that connects us to our past while pushing us into our present, and using our God-given intellect while striving to stay humble and, therefore, useful to God. (Richard Hooker meme courtesy of Episcopal Church memes) 

Finally, we allow ourselves to be continually astounded by Jesus, much like the congregation at the synagogue was in today’s gospel from Mark.

Mark has Jesus moving immediately from calling Andrew, Peter, James, and John, to Capernaum, what the Native American translation of the Bible calls the City of Comfort, from its original Hebrew name. There was only one temple in Jerusalem but there were many local synagogues.

The leader of the synagogue was likely not a rabbi but more like our Wardens who tend to the business aspects of the community. They were, therefore, always on the lookout for teachers who would lead the discussions and prayers. Rabbi Jesus did that in today’s gospel.

Mark doesn’t tell us what Jesus preached, but it must have been spectacular because everyone there was astounded by his teaching. As he taught, the people discerned that Jesus’ authority came not from his credentials or his ability to cite precedent as the Scribes typically did, but from God.

And that was only the beginning. While Jesus is teaching, a man in an unclean spirit yells out to him, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us?”

I’m not sure why the traditional translation says “a man with an unclean spirit” rather than “in an unclean spirit” which is what it actually says because a man with an unclean spirit wouldn’t have been allowed in the synagogue in the first place.

Also, that makes it sound like the man was possessed by a spirit beyond himself, which isn’t what Mark said. More likely, he was a faithful member of that community who was astute enough to comprehend that what Jesus was teaching would upend the status quo, so he was unwilling to accept it or let go of the traditions and structures that protected and served him, even if they didn’t protect or serve others.

I say he was astute because he declares: “I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” That’s astounding because even Jesus’ newly called disciples wouldn’t reach that understanding for years.

Jesus rebukes him, but that isn’t what it sounds like. Jesus isn’t reprimanding or scolding him but elevating him. The word translated as rebuke means to put further honor upon, to estimate higher. Jesus recognized the accurate discernment of this man, even though the man’s fear was clearly a stumbling block for him, so with a word, Jesus healed him, removing his stumbling block in a dramatic way, setting him free from that which obstructed his path to a right relationship with God and neighbor.

The people are again amazed! Our Scripture says they ask, what new teaching is this? But what they actually ask is, ‘What new process of teaching is this?’

What Jesus did was manifest his divine power instead of talking about it. Jesus came to bring salvation, to free us from the power of sin and death, and he demonstrates this undeniably in this story from Mark, freeing a man from that which impeded his spiritual growth – with a word! The Word of God!

It continues to surprise us how deeply Jesus knows us, cares for us, and continues to free us from whatever hinders the growth and deepening of our relationship with God and neighbor. That’s why we must constantly discern, making space for God’s love to guide us in God’s way, beyond our own understanding and habits, setting us free from whatever hinders us.

Let us pray: Come dear Jesus, into our hearts and make us one with you, one in you. Give us courage to discern your path for us, strengthen our friendships to carry us forward, and grant us your wisdom as we use the gifts you’ve given us to serve in your holy name, for that will truly glorify you. Amen.

Sunday, January 14, 2024

2 Epiphany, 2024: Bearers of the light of Christ today

Lectionary: 1 Samuel 3:1-10(11-20); Psalm 139:1-5, 12-17; 1 Corinthians 6:12-20; John 1:43-51

En el nombre de Dios que es nuestra fuente, nuestra luz y nuestro sustento. Amén. In the name of God who is our source, our light, and our sustenance. Amen. 

Have you ever been in the kind of darkness where you literally can’t see your hand in front of your face? What did you think or experience in that moment? 

Darkness is scary, isn’t it? In darkness, we feel alone, vulnerable, and unsafe. We can’t see so we’re afraid to take a step even though we want desperately to escape. And the longer we’re in darkness, the harder it is to keep hope alive.

But the moment a light appears, we have a felt sense of relief and our hope is restored. We know we are not alone and that we will be saved.

In my former work with trauma victims, we would ask the question: When did you know you were safe? The answer almost always included when they knew they were not alone, that someone cared about them and would help them.

That someone for us is Jesus. In the language of the Epiphany season, Jesus is the light that enters every darkness in the world. We are never alone. We are loved and cared for by the one who created us, redeemed us, and values us beyond our ability to comprehend.

When we treat Jesus like an idea, however, like a thing outside of ourselves, we steal from ourselves the comfort and hope he gives us. Jesus is God who became human, thereby lifting all humanity into the divine life. All humanity. He did this in his life, death, and resurrection, and he did it once for all. So, the question for us isn’t the popular what would Jesus do… Jesus who is out there somewhere in some far-off celestial place, but what is Jesus doing… in me, in us, in this moment, in this place, in this circumstance?

The only way for us to know the answer to that question is to be in relationship with Jesus – the real Jesus who lives and moves in us, the church, and ourselves as individual members of it. It’s a relationship that happens over time and in community, each member offering an important perspective and experience that benefits the whole.

Growing in this life in Christ means practicing living the John the Baptist way – he must increase so I must decrease. We must actively diminish our thoughts, ways, judgments, and limited understanding to make way for God’s plan of love to take priority in our lives and guide our every decision.

God’s plan always was and always will be too wonderful for us and we cannot attain to it, as the psalmist says. We rarely see it coming and it is always beyond anything we can expect or imagine, as the story from Samuel and Eli demonstrates for us.

When the divine correction began for them, Eli and Samuel didn’t stop loving one another. They didn’t demonize or exile the other. They stayed faithful to their relationship with God and one another so that in God’s time, a new path was forged through their cooperative obedience. It turns out, Jesus was right about that great command, wasn’t he?

It turns out we really do need to love God with all our hearts, minds, strength, and souls, and our neighbors as ourselves. Everything else proceeds from that.

When I was in college, I participated in some psychological experiments in which we were placed in isolation tanks meant to remove all stimuli from our sensory experience. We were basically floating in salted water in a closed capsule. There was no sound, no light, and our bodies touched nothing being buoyed by the water. The experiment was to measure the changes in our brain waves the longer we stayed in the tanks.

Some couldn’t do it. The sensory deprivation created panic and they had to be released almost immediately. A handful of others lasted longer, but only a few of us stayed the whole time.

I loved the experience. I knew I was safe and being observed, so I was able to enter the dark emptiness and just be there in it. I could feel my body transition from mild anxiety – what is going to happen? – to relaxation, to complete surrender to the nothingness, needing nothing, seeking nothing, just being.\

Not only did this experience cure me of any fear of the dark, I also found truth there. I was not a practicing Christian at the time, but I experienced God in that tank. That experience was nothing like I was taught in Sunday school. It was a much bigger experience of love, of oneness, than I could ever have anticipated or imagined. (Note: Painting by Manuela Rivera Mulvey, my mother. She called it, "God")

I entered the experiment expecting to learn something about human biology, but I ended up learning something so much bigger than that. A light was lit in me, and it took years before I understood it. It was my Nathaniel moment.

In our gospel today, Nathaniel is brought by Philip to meet Jesus, whom he believes is the long-awaited Messiah. Nathaniel’s short conversation with Jesus is transforming for him in a way that will take years for him to fully understand. When Jesus explains that he saw Nathaniel under the fig tree, Nathaniel knows this is knowledge that is beyond human, and you can almost feel the startle in his body. This is for real!

Nathaniel’s response reveals his limited understanding, however, the one he got in Sunday school: “Rabbi, you are the Son of God, …the King of Israel.” Nathaniel is taking this large, unitive experience and placing it in a box he can understand and manage: you are the honored teacher, the expected Messiah, the King like David who has come to save us from this terrible moment.

Jesus, probably sighing, says to all those gathered there, It’s so much more than that. Just wait. You’ll see greater things than these… you’ll see heaven and earth in a relationship it has never known before.

And that’s the crux of it all, isn’t it? In Jesus, heaven and earth became unified in the one who is fully divine and fully human. It had never happened before, and it never needs to happen again because it is an everlasting reality. It is our reality.

As St. Paul says, Jesus made us temples of the Holy Spirit. We are where heaven and earth, divine and human, are one. What we do, therefore, matters.

In response to some pretty dark behaviors that had found acceptance in Corinth, Paul narrows in on fornication in his epistle. His point is: what we do reflects who we are and our relationship with one another and with God. So, honor your body. Honor your neighbor’s body. By doing so, you honor God, who marvelously knit us all together in our mother’s wombs.

What I appreciate about Paul’s letter is that it reminds us to live in the truth we know - that the Holy Spirit of God dwells in us. Think about the reality of that - God dwells in us.

The light who came into the world on Christmas Day, who illumines us now through Word and Sacrament… the light that dispels the darkness of the world now radiates from us, and that light is Jesus Christ himself. As the current bearers of this light, we can, and we must enter any darkness, any nightmare of the world, and bring this truth to it.

Tomorrow, we celebrate one saint who did that well: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a prophet who radiated the light of Christ, and who, like other biblical prophets, was both imperfect and faithful. Dr. King’s message of the value and dignity of every human being threatened the status quo, so it killed him, 56 years ago now.

In our OT story, the abuses of Eli’s sons were widely known but the system that enabled them was deeply embedded in Jewish tradition and Eli’s privilege as a Judge within that system meant he could have - and should have - interceded, but he didn’t.

The systems enabling the desolations in our time are being revealed to us in undeniable ways. Many among us who can - and should - stop the abuses in our systems haven’t done so. The moment of our accountability and divine correction is upon us. How will we respond?

It is my prayer that we will hear and respond to God’s call to us to be partners with Christ in the reconciliation of the whole world to God. While that may seem too large, too wonderful a concept for us to comprehend or accomplish, it is, nevertheless, our divine purpose and we don’t do it alone. The Spirit of God who dwells in us works through us, the church, and us as individual members of it… and nothing shall be impossible with God. Amen.