Third Sunday after Epiphany
- Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10
- Psalm 19
- 1 Corinthians 12:12-31a
- Luke 4:14-21
"May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my strength and my redeemer."
If your house is anything like ours, you probably have at least one thing – or likely even a few things – that are still lying around as remnants of this Christmas past. In our house it’s a basket of Christmas cards (and the basket is still collecting cards!), an ornament that I got this year but forgot to pack with our collection of ornaments from previous years, and a table-top of miniature lighted homes that I can never bear to put away until sometime around the first day of February. Somehow, keeping the lights on in our little snow village helps me feel warmer during these frigid January nights.
I even caught Stross watching a Christmas program on YouTube this week. It seems he has my genetic disposition to hold onto a little piece of Christmas for as long as possible. And, why not? After all, the somber, introspective days of Lent will be upon us soon enough – formally leaving behind all the fun of a baby’s birth and the wonder of a God who loved us enough to share in our human experience.
Beyond the physical trappings of a holiday like Christmas, we carry memories of other special holidays with us in profound ways, don’t we? And we are able to bring back memories through things like a favorite smell (baked bread? vanilla candles? Grandpa’s pipe or Grandma’s cologne?) or by examining a treasured object that we hold in our hand as we attempt to connect with another time and place (a pressed flower … dad’s pocket knife … Grandmother’s favorite earrings … a rock that possibly contains a speck of gold). Or perhaps by closing our eyes as we listen to a song (Amazing Grace? Beautiful Savior? REO Speedwagon’s “I Can’t Fight This Feeling”). Well they don’t all have to be churchy. Special memories are special memories and that song just happens to be the one that was playing 26 years ago in February when I knew my night would end with Mark and I sharing our first kiss. What a great song … What a great memory … *sigh*
It seems there’s something healing about this kind of remembering. At least that’s how I feel when I allow myself to engage in something I’ve come to think of as nostalgia therapy. For me it usually involves grabbing an old family photo album, a childhood scrapbook or a yearbook, and then going someplace where I can quietly sit and linger over the pages as long as I like. I examine the expressions of high school or college classmates, and I study the faces of relatives who – like me – don’t look the same as they used to.
The closest I’ve come to understanding why I do this is that I want to remember. I want to feel what it felt like to be me, back when life was – I don’t know … simpler? Less complicated? More mysterious in a good way? … I’m not sure. But each time my nostalgia therapy reconnects me to God, allowing me to keep moving forward with God but in a new way. That’s what I thought about when I first read today’s scripture from Nehemiah.
We are told that it was the first day of the seventh ecclesiastical year, the New Year’s Day of the Jewish civil year. It was a time of great celebration – and Ezra, a priestly scribe who had led about 5,000 Israelite exiles from Babylon back to Jerusalem, was bestowed with the honor of reading the scripture for the Feast of Trumpets.
It was a high honor, indeed, and this practice had often been neglected during the years the Israelites lived in Babylon, a foreign land. So as Ezra read, we are told they were attentive; they were patient (they stood listening from morning to midday); and that they were overcome with a sense of what they were hearing – so much so that they wept.
They were – once again or maybe for the first time – hearing about a God who loved them. A God who had laid out five full books of law to show just how much God cared for them. And life, it seemed, hadn’t really gone the way this chosen people of God had thought it would.
Still, here they stood – returned from exile and celebrating … remembering … and then weeping …
But the weeping didn’t last for long, for the Levite priests who were assisting Erza that day comforted them with these words: “Be quiet, for this day is holy; do not be grieved.”
And so all the people “went their way to eat and drink and to send portions” to those who had nothing “and to make great rejoicing” because they had understood.
So, what exactly had they understood? Why were they able to go on their way renewed?
I don’t think it was just the food and beverage.
I think they got revived through an ancient version of my 21st century nostalgia therapy. I think these people of God – recently returned from exile in a foreign land – were reminded of the special place they held as God’s chosen people. And then they got back to the business of being just that: God’s people, living in community with one another and taking care of those (how did the verse say it?) “for whom nothing had been prepared.”
Everybody it seemed was to be part of the party.
It’s not all that different from what we hear being described in today’s New Testament lesson from the book of 1st Corinthians, is it? Paul’s letter is to a group of people – new followers of Christ – who are attempting to live in community, in a new way. As chapter 12 begins, we hear Paul reminding them that they are no longer a pagan people prone to worship idols. They are a spiritual people of God equipped with a variety of spiritual gifts – no gift more important or special than another. In fact, Paul stresses that God needs all gifts to work together in order for this church to work for God’s glory.
Paul seems to really like this metaphor of the body, for he uses it more than once. He also lists types of spiritual gifts in more than one of his letters to the early churches. But it is difficult to recognize a metaphor in action – to see the words leap off the paper and come to life as something bigger than the literal translation.
And if we get too literal about a metaphor, we might get tripped up. For example, what is someone like me, who has a child born with birth defects, to think when I read: “If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be?” Paul could also have asked: “If the whole body were arms, where would the feet be?” And had he written that I would not want my child to feel less simply because his non-functional legs might be considered less by some. After all, in Paul’s day, those who were born malformed or became malformed were considered unclean and not worthy of entrance to the temple. Fortunately, Paul takes great pains to stress that the value of the body lies in way the individual members are able to work together, and he stresses that “the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable.” Amen and amen.
No matter who we are or how we identify with Paul’s metaphor, we can envision a physical body – eye, ear, hand, foot, heart and more – all working together. That’s easy. But envisioning the body of Christ functioning together – what does that look like? I mean, really?
Maybe we get stuck wanting to know which part of the body we are? For instance, wouldn’t you love it if we had a special day each year where we all got together and someone walked by us saying something like: “Joy, you have the gift of (fill in the blank). Now, here is your special nametag. Please wear this so we all know that you are the appendix.”
What!?! The appendix?
I’m not sure I like being the appendix. Would you? An appendix is something modern science has basically found a bit unnecessary. I would like to be something a bit more flashy … a bit more important, wouldn’t you? … Or maybe you wouldn’t … Maybe you want to be one of the hidden parts of the body Paul talked about. Or maybe something visible but considered by the unknowing as lessor.
Does it matter? You know, I don’t really think it does, and I think that was Paul’s point. It does not matter what part of the body you are. It just matters that you realize you are part of the body – and an important one and needed one at that.
I think we do understand we are part of something bigger than ourselves – but I’m not sure we always like it … or maybe we’re just not sure what to do about it.
Let’s see: What are the spiritual gifts Paul lists in this passage? Wisdom … knowledge … faith … healing … working of miracles … prophecy … discernment of spirits … speaking in tongues … interpretation of tongues … It can be pretty easy to look at that list and strike several off outright, can’t it? Healing? … me? No way … Prophecy?… yeah, right … Speaking in tongues? … umm … pretty sure not … no, not that one. …
Are you crazy …?
In fact, I remember being in fifth grade and hearing this very scripture read at my church. Oh, it caused me such an overwhelming sense of dread. I heard Paul’s words telling me that each one of us is given gifts for the manifestation of the common good. Based on the list I heard, I didn’t want those gifts. I mean really. How could you go about your daily life performing miracles, prophesying and speaking in tongues without being labeled an absolute freak?
As I sat in the pew that day, I envisioned God reaching down through the vaulted sanctuary ceiling and laying an invisible hand on me that would cause me to involuntarily rise to my feet and begin speaking in tongues – right there in the United Methodist Church of West Union, Iowa. So I did what any self-respecting, God-fearing fifth grader would do. I began to pray: “Dear God, please don’t bless me. Please don’t bless me. You can give me some gifts. But not that one God. Please, please. Dear. God. Please not that one… and not some of the other ones either. I think I’d rather not be a gifted child of God. It seems a bit scary.”
And, you know what? God must have answered my prayer. Well, at least I’ve not ever involuntarily risen to my feet in church to begin speaking in tongues. Must not be how God works.
Seriously, I think I felt in fifth grade what each of us feels at some point in our lives: a fear of what could happen if we fully gave ourselves to God’s work here on earth.
One of my favorite quotes – sometimes mistakenly attributed to Nelson Mandela – is by an author named Marianne Williamson. She wrote:
“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It's not just in some of us – it's in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”
Do you hear that? Marianne, the apostle Paul and God all agree. You are incredibly gifted.
What’s more. You need to be who you are as a child of God so that others can be who they are. Each one of us is part of the larger whole. This is HUGE! For my life will be less if you aren’t living as the incredible child of God you were created to be and yours will be less if I’m not living that way as well. Think of it as God’s Divine “Be All You Can Be Campaign.”
• You are gifted.
• You don’t need it plastered on a nametag or feared as some supernatural force. You just are.
• And your giftedness is equally important as the giftedness of the person to your left … to your right … in front of you … behind you… walking across the parking lot across the street right now … strolling through Dollar General right now or pushing a cart down the aisles of Bill’s Family Foods or Forest City Foods.
• You are part of the body and belong to a God who will not let you go.
Will you remember this?
You know those ornaments and cards and albums I spoke of earlier? They are tangible reminders for me of moments that hold great meaning. Things I can see that help me connect to things I can’t see anymore.
This is the season of Epiphany – the celebration of God manifested in the person of Jesus Christ – a tangible expression of God’s love for you.
A God who brings good news to the poor … releases captives … gives sight to those who can’t see … and sets oppressed people free.
And you know what? That stuff is happening every day on this kingdom come to earth. This year – this brand new year of 2010 – is the year of the Lord. And you’ll find the Lord busier than ever:
• digging through rubble to lift people to safety,
• picking up a scared child to whisper reassuring words,
• packing food into a box and helping a family carry it to their car,
• clearing a driveway of snow so a woman can drive to work,
• smiling at a guy in line who looks like he could use a smile,
• handing a quarter to a girl at a checkout counter because hers fell behind some shelving,
• saying he’s sorry to his friend because he knows the words hurt,
• mailing a card with a check tucked inside so someone's month will end a little easier.
The list could go on and on and on … and you know why … I know you do: because the members of the body of Christ are equipped with spiritual gifts – each one important – each one necessary – each one needed.
And we are a busy bunch.
Child of God … I am so grateful to be part of the body with you.
You know the story of Christmas. You know the story of Easter. May you also know what it means for a risen Christ to be made manifest in your life – to live and walk and laugh and work and cry and smile with you, with us.
Immanuel, God with us.
Immanuel, may we always remember what it means to serve a God who loved us enough to become one of us – who continues to be with us – and who makes certain that we are never alone.