Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The 3rd Sunday after the Epiphany: ...Everyone is Dear

It has been an interesting week in our nation’s capital. While I usually shy away from talking politics in my sermons, let me bend my rule and say that I am glad Scott Brown has been elected to the Senate by the good people of Massachusetts. My happiness emanates not so much from my politics, but from my understanding of the Baptismal Covenant. You and I, as members of the body of Christ, have promised to respect the dignity of every human being. Whenever one political party holds the presidency and majorities in the House and Senate it is in a position to enact legislation without the consent, input, or support of the minority party. Given the opportunity, both Republicans and Democrats would do just that. And when 60% of a group acts in a way that is completely indifferent to the other 40%, that denies the dignity, worth, and value of those who are powerless. As messy as the political process may be, our country is better off when every voice is heard and every legislator’s vote matters.

If I offend, forgive me, but our readings this morning invite us to reflect on the nature of groups and the inner relationships which drive them.

In the reading from I Corinthians, St. Paul continues to confront a serious problem in the local church. Today we would say that its membership was multicultural. A huge variety of people had responded to the Gospel and were bound together as a family in Christ. Some were Jews, others Greek. Some had been free all of their lives, others were slaves. Within one congregation there was tremendous diversity around ethnic origin, social status, economic prosperity, and life experience.

From what Paul writes, we can deduce three things that he believed about their situation.

First, diversity, be it in a congregation or in a society as a whole, is the way of life. Using the metaphor of the human body, Paul says that a body of people consists of different parts. The hand is not the foot, the ear is not the eye. Each is different, distinctive, unique. This is our reality.

Second, Paul acknowledges that diversity is a challenge. We gravitate naturally to people who look like us or act like us or think like us or earn like us. In fact, even in a homogenous group, people will sniff out differences and distinctions and divide accordingly. We balk and blink at things like sensitivity training and political correctness; efforts that, while at times misguided, are aimed at helping us all to get along. Republicans and Democrats, rich and poor, powerful and powerless, young and old, high tech savvy and no tech ability, rock and rap, evangelical/conservative and mainline liberal, hokies and hoos: we all have to learn how to get along… and that can be – and usually is – a real challenge.

Scholars believe that Paul wrote up to five different letters to the Corinthian church, each a response to a letter from them. Some of Paul’s letters are folded into the two Epistles we have in the New Testament and at least one is lost. We do not have any of the letters that the church wrote to Paul, but based on his responses, we can surmise what they wrote about. And most of their internal struggles boiled down to the challenge of diversity.

So here is the third thing Paul says about their situation: Diversity, which is a reality and challenge, is also a blessing. Within the wide variety of people and experiences there is an incredible array of gifts and abilities. Just as the human body needs individual parts which carry out a distinctive function, so too does a community of faith, and so too does our country, and so too does our world.

This giftedness in diversity does not happen by accident. Paul states that is a direct result of the intentional work of God’s Spirit. In fact, we can say that a lack of diversity within a group or within society is an indicator that God’s Spirit is being withheld or ignored or frustrated. So, back to politics for a second, it is much easier for a single voice or a united mindset to pass legislation on, say, health care reform. Easier, yes, but not better. It is much, much harder to pass legislation when a plethora of voices and ideas and perspectives weighs in on the conversation, but we all benefit when every voice is heard and every perspective valued. From such diversity consensus can emerge. In Paul’s theology, this is exactly what God intends. It is how God’s Spirit works in and through a group.

In our Gospel reading, we hear of a time when Jesus returns to his hometown and goes to church (and the text tells us that He did so every Sabbath day). Unlike our church, where various trained members of the congregation read assigned lessons and the ordained professional – me – comments on them, in the synagogue every member had the opportunity to read and comment on the Scriptures. We don’t know if individual members were assigned to read and comment on a specific day and we don’t know if the readings were assigned by something like our lectionary or if they were chosen by the reader, but in any case, on this day Jesus was the reader and the lesson came from the prophet Isaiah.

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 poor, the captives, the blind, the oppressed. These people, be they spiritually poor or financially poor, captive in a literal or in a figurative sense, lacking vision or lacking insight, oppressed from without or oppressed from within, are a part of the diversity of a community. They are a part of our reality, our challenge, and our blessing. That Jesus claims them to Himself in the inaugural moments of His public ministry says something very important, doesn’t it. He is not willing to forsake a single person, especially a person who the rest of the group might consider as dragging them down or holding them back. Jesus sides Himself with the most vulnerable members of the group.

I used to carry in my prayer book a post-it note on which I had written a quote by Evelyn Underhill, the English writer and Christian mystic. I put it in my prayer book so that every time I opened it at the beginning of the service I saw it. Here is what the note said: “In the Kingdom of God, no one is adequate, but every one is dear.” I read it to remind myself that my own shortcomings in no way removes my from God’s love and keep. I also read it to redefine how I looked at each person at the service: the acolyte who can’t remember what to do, the altar guild member who is obsessing about a wrinkle in the hangings, the usher who seems oblivious to the visitor, the choir member whose not-so-alto voice is giving me a spitting headache, the parishioner who fidgets or day-dreams or visits the land of nod during my sermon, the person poised to point out a typo in the bulletin, the small child who noisy squirming proclaims “I have sat still long enough”: none – starting with me – is adequate, but each – including me – is dear. To uses some common slang, that is how we roll as the body of Christ.

Every faith community is as strong as these four elements:

The faith and faithfulness of its members.

The quality of the relationships within the faith community.

The care and concern it expresses for those outside the faith community.

The level of leadership that rises up within the community.

Each of these four is essential. If one is lacking the effectiveness of faith community is diminished and its future vitality is in peril. Today’s readings remind us to focus on the quality of our relationships: to value and build on our diversity and to recognize that the mark of our common life is seen in our acceptance of and our compassion for the least and most vulnerable in our midst.

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