Other letters, like this one to the early church in Corinth, are written to a single community facing particular concerns. It really gives a vibrant picture of what was going on in the community, which has been an insightful gift to other church communities throughout history.
What we are reading is Paul’s reply to a letter he received from the Corinthians, where they had identified several issues their community was contending with: marriage, food sacrificed to idols, and spiritual gifts. The latter is addressed in today’s passage.
There was tension within the community, as some members were placing a higher value on certain spiritual gifts, particularly the ability to speak in tongues. This was then exasperated by the fact that some members with the gift to speak in tongues, were looking down on those who did not. A shortsighted, arrogant, and foolish notion -- yet a very human one, nonetheless.
Paul’s response was to lift up the importance of a diversity of gifts, which unites us as one body of Christ. We are offered these gifts by the Holy Spirit for the common good. In other words, gifts, such as speaking in tongues, are not actually given to increase one’s social status in a community. When we start thinking our gift, skill, or ministry matters more than others, our egos have gotten in the way.
Paul then names some spiritual gifts:
Speaking in tongues
Interpretation of tongues
In Paul’s famous passage on love, he writes these gifts are nothing without love.* Love is the glue that holds the whole community united together as one.
I don’t think Paul’s list is exhaustive, and it’s worth lifting up more of those diverse gifts the Spirit offers:
Other gifts we may not think of as spiritual gifts, include knowledge of particular skills that benefit the common good, such as:
And so much more.
While the Spirit offers and activates those spiritual gifts within us, they are identified, cultivated, shaped, and shared in the context of community. It’s why discernment is never done alone in isolation.
Given the pace of life, and the overall aging and decline of most church communities, it is not uncommon for churches to shift away from discerning gifts and instead get stuck in a vicious cycle of simply trying to fill the gaps. Ensuring there are enough people in the various committees, ministries, and outreach efforts. We are so busy and tired that we get stuck with the ancient assumption that we should do things the way they’ve always been done, even if it kills us.
That same assumption also perpetuates a belief that is not grounded in love- and that is that we just need to do more and be more in order to get the job done. But as Walter Bruggemann so eloquently writes:
“Multitasking is the drive to be more than we are, to control more than we do, to extend our power and effectiveness.”
When we start over functioning and multitasking to fill gaps, we lose track of the art of community discernment. We also unintentionally disempower members of the community who have gifts that the Spirit is waiting for the community to identify, nurture, and shape. Just like those folks speaking in tongues in Corinth, our egos, however well intentioned, get in our way. We unintentionally dull creative thinking and encourage burnout, while also holding the church community back from what it could be.
So, what does it look like to discern gifts in community?
I grew up in an Episcopal church that held a lot of status in its heyday, and the generations of privilege the community benefited from left it ill prepared for their aging population and overall decline. I was one of a few teenagers, all vastly different in age. One of the real benefits of this was early on I learned how to be in conversation and serve alongside people of all ages.
However, to a few, I was a nuisance. The young person that was incapable of sitting still while serving on the altar. My youthful presence, with all it's goofy, awkwardness, disrupted the pristine version of worship a few privileged elders had grown accustomed to in the church’s heyday. I was spoken to, more than once, by a couple of elders, and not in a particularly kind, or caring way.
The reason their discouragement did not have me saying ‘see ya later’ to the church, was because of everyone else. There were numerous elders who encouraged me, coached me, lifted up my gifts, cultivated my skills, gave me opportunities to grow, and mirrored back to me what they saw as my calling, to be a church leader. And they kept encouraging me, whether I read the lesson perfectly or butchered the reading, they knew encouraging people to take part in the life of the church mattered more than the beauty and precision of the worship service. I grew up with dozens of elders who wanted to see me be the best version of myself for the common good, and their encouragement helped me find my way in a manner I never could have on my own.
The art of community discernment can look exactly like what I just described. Except we can apply this same model of listening, walking alongside, encouraging, offering opportunities, and coaching, to empower a robust lay ministry grounded in the practice of communal discernment. No matter our age, level of experience, length of stay in the community--we each have gifts that as a community we need to help one another identify, cultivate, shape, and share.
Another way I have seen community discernment embodied is with intentional discernment circles, whose objective is to help folks clarify their spiritual gifts and calling. Small groups gather with a facilitator to share their spiritual journeys, reflect on a variety of questions together, and help one another see the themes and gifts in our stories and lives.
Frederick Buecher once said,
“The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”
We need one another to discern our gifts, and to clarify how our gifts help serve the common good. When we do the community work of discernment, we also find opportunities to mentor, support, and nurture one another to grow in faith. And at the root of it all, if we’ve done our work well, we will each be sharing the gift that brings us deep joy and gladness in a way that strengthens the whole community.
Recently, one of our ministry team leaders wrote to their team to convey some information, and at the bottom of their email they wrote something I think we all may want to consider saying to one another, regularly: They wrote,
“This ministry is voluntary and should never feel like a chore. If you ever reach the point where it is no longer fulfilling or enjoyable, please let me know! As with all ministries, I expect membership to be fluid and change as people experience different callings.”
I mentioned earlier that sometimes churches loose track of communal discernment, and find themselves attempting to fill an ever growing list of gaps. Which is a bit like trying to fix a dam with several leaks, and water rushing out in all directions. As soon as you fix one leak, another one appears. Approaching ministry as gap filling will quickly lead to feelings of defeat and weariness.
Jesus of Nazareth, the disciples, Paul, and the early church never meant for us to minister by filling the gaps. Instead, we start from a different direction.
Maybe something started out as a joy, but has become a chore. That’s okay.
As we grow, we change, and sometimes our gifts do too. That is part of the journey of faith.
It also means, there may be ministry teams, fellowship, or outreach efforts that we may realize are no longer where our community’s energies are. If we stick to sharing our gifts and single tasking, letting go of our internal wiring to be and do more than we are, we may find our community can’t do everything we once did. We may need to consolidate our efforts to live more sustainably. In order to do the work of discernment, it requires that we move a bit slower, with more care and mindfulness behind our words and actions.
We may be less productive by secular standards, but I think such a pivot can leave a community feeling healthier, more energized and joy-filled, while also providing a deeper sense of connection with one another.
As we look towards our community’s future, what would it look like to pivot from gap filling to more intentional communal discernment of gifts?
*1 Corinthians 13:1-3
Our Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry, refers to us as “the Episcopal branch of the Jesus movement”. The tree off the movement, to follow Bishop Michael’s metaphor, is vast and complicated. Christianity is the largest religious tradition in the world in terms of numbers of adherents.
We might wonder at why the Jesus movement has split itself into so many different branches and twigs, but it is understandable that especially when it comes to beliefs and practices that we hold dear, that give direction to the way we live our lives and that we’re both intellectually and emotionally invested in, it can be hard to compromise. From the time that Jesus was still with his disciples, disagreements and disputes arose, and the New Testament records the fact that differences within and between congregations were very much a part of life from the earliest days of the church.
In the fourth and fifth centuries, disagreement about belief, practice, and authority had become concerning enough that Christian leaders gathered in a series of councils with the goal of hammering out their differences. Some points of consensus emerged about what it meant to be a follower of Jesus. The creed we say weekly was formulated at the First Council of Nicea in 325, and certain schools of belief were declared to be heresies at Constantinople and Ephesus. As you might anticipate, however, concord or compromise could NOT be reached on some of the early church’s disagreements, and the first significant formal instances of separation between traditions took place, to be followed, over the centuries, by many more.
For our purposes today, the important point of differentiation leading to what is now the Episcopal branch was the Protestant reformation of the 16th century. At the time, Christian Europe was united under the authority of the Bishop of Rome, the Pope. In 1517 Martin Luther, a German teacher and monk, published a document he called “Disputation on the Power of Indulgences” or 95 Theses that he was inviting other church leaders to debate with him. As you’re undoubtedly aware, Luther wasn’t subtle: he posted his document on the door of the church in Wittenburg.
Luther’s thinking and action was radical because the Catholic Church of the time was extremely dogmatic: its teachings – especially if they came from the Pope himself – were to be accepted without question and its practices followed to the letter, or one could expect dire consequences in the afterlife.
Luther’s fundamental disagreement with the Church was that it had set itself up as a necessary intermediary between the believer and God. The faithful needed to purchase forgiveness of their sins by payments to the Church and neither the Bible nor the words of worship itself were in the languages that ordinary people spoke or could read. Luther, and reformers like Calvin and Zwingli who followed his actions in publicly challenging Catholic teachings, wanted believers to understand that they have an independent relationship with God for which they are responsible, without the mediation of the Church or its clergy.
The English Reformation that resulted in our “branch of the Jesus movement” was more political than theological. We’re all familiar with the sad story of King Henry VIII of England and his six wives. Henry was fundamentally a devout Catholic and, in the early part of his reign, was named “Defender of the Faith” by Pope Leo X for his staunch support of papal supremacy. His failure to produce a male heir became a driving force in his life in the second decade of his reign and his marriage to Catherine of Aragon, however. Pope Clement VII refused to approve annulment of Henry’s marriage in order for Henry to remarry. Henry and his advisors, including Thomas Cranmer (of whom we’ll hear more), eventually engineered a parliamentary act denying the authority of the Pope over the English Church and identifying the English monarch as “Supreme Head” of the Church in doctrinal and legal matters, opening the way for Henry to obtain a divorce.
The Church of England was, in he following decades, actually pretty ambivalent about the ideas of Luther and the other reformers, and and the way the church developed was motivated by both religious and political concerns. Some influential thinkers and political advisors (including Henry’s second wife Anne Boleyn) were genuinely sympathetic to the ideas of the Protestants, while others remained deeply attached to both the theology and liturgical practices of Catholicism.
This ambivalence in the English Church leads to what I want to identify as the first significant characteristic of Anglicanism, but before we go there, let’s look briefly at the way authority and governance in our part of the Church is organized.
The Anglican Communion includes all churches throughout the world that choose to affiliate themselves with the Church of England, and all, to be truthful about it, spring from the centuries of colonization practiced by the British Empire.
Coming out of the Reformation, Anglicanism retained (from Catholicism) an episcopal structure. Bishops have responsibility for and authority over priests, deacons, and laypeople in matters of practice. This is why Heather and I ask Bishop Doug for permission when we want to use liturgies that don’t come from the prayer book, and when, early in the pandemic, Bishop Doug communicated that Episcopal Bishops had agreed that “remote consecration”, setting bread and wine in individual homes for consecration during virtual worship, was not in keeping established understanding and tradition in the Episcopal Church, we complied.
The Head Bishop (or Primate) of each member branch of the Anglican Communion, including the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Primate of the Church of England, is a spiritual leader and frequently acts as a spokesperson for the denomination, but does not have authority over other bishops as the Pope does in Roman Catholicism.
To be “in communion” with other Anglican churches is like being in a family: we don’t always agree with one another, but we commit to remaining in communication and (as an ideal, not always realized,) we don’t attempt to impose our own understanding and ways of doing things on one another. In the last several decades the Episcopal Church has often been an outlier in the Anglican Communion as a result of our decisions to ordain women and to open the sacraments including ordination and marriage to sisters and brothers who identify as GLBTQ+.
So on to what is really important: What are the principals and characteristics that distinguish us from the many other branches and twigs of the Jesus movement? I’d like to touch on three.
1) We are characterized as being a via media, a middle way between the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches and the most reformed of the Protestant denominations. This principal springs from such Reformation leaders as Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury under Henry, who wanted to embrace the thinking of the reformers without, in effect, throwing the baby out with the bathwater in abandoning all Roman Catholic thinking.
This via media sensibility is undoubtedly why so many people raised in the Catholic tradition find their way to the Episcopal Church. Our liturgy and devotional practices and often, our theology, remain close to that of the Catholic Church.
I personally think that part of the genius of the Anglican way is that the via media nature of the denomination embraces a “big tent” approach: for the most part (and again, we sometimes fail at this,) we allow for differences in emphasis and practice according to personal preference and local custom. Some Anglicans pray with rosaries and icons, many don’t. Congregations on the “high church” end of the spectrum use incense and bells in worship, many do not. Some call their clergy “Reverend” or “Pastor” and others prefer “Father” or “Mother”. You don’t see such diversity and tolerance in all denominations.
2) A second characteristic of Anglicanism is closely related. Richard Hooker of the late 16th century is generally credited with coming up with the image of the “three-legged stool” on which the via media rests, even though the metaphor as we use it today really comes from the 19th century Oxford Movement.
The concept of the three-legged stool is that Anglican doctrine is based on three things – scripture, tradition, and reason, and that all three must be taken into consideration in order for the stool – the teaching and practice of the Church – to be in balance.
Some denomination favor one or another of the three: “if we don’t find something in the Bible, it shouldn’t be part of Christian practice”; or, “we’ve always done it that way, so it must be what God wants us to do”. Anglicans insist, coming from the work of the Reformers, that the Bible contains “all things necessary to salvation”2 Like the Catholic churches, we maintain deep respect for the wisdom of longstanding tradition, and are very cautious about precipitous change. But we are also committed to the exercise of human reason, of critical analysis, of logical consistency and of implications. If what the Bible and tradition suggest are not consistent with the lived experience of the people, we’ve got to keep working on thinking it through.
3) The third defining characteristic and foundational principle of Anglicanism that I want to mention this morning is reflected in yet another churchy phrase from the latin: Lex orandi, lex credendi. Loosely translated, “the law of prayer is the law of belief” or better, “You are what you pray.”
Words are important to Episcopalians because we understand that “prayer, belief, and action are intimately tied together.”3 Episcopalians, as do Anglicans worldwide, use a common prayer book. Thomas Cranmer (again) oversaw and in fact wrote many of the words of the first Book of Common Prayer, published in 1549. It was the first time English-speaking people had a common text guiding them, in the language they spoke, in their relationship with God. Many of the prayers were translations in (then) contemporary language of ancient prayers dating back many centuries, and thus, served to root Anglicans deeply in the Church’s traditions. We continue to use many of those 16th century words in our prayers today.
The language we use in prayer shapes the way we understand God, ourselves, and the world. The words we say when praying together don’t just express what we believe, they determine what we believe. And in shaping our beliefs, they determine the choices we make.
I am glad to be an Episcopalian. Having grown up in the tradition I haven’t known any other way, so my assessment isn’t exactly unbiased. I love the rich liturgical practices of the Church, and our embrace of symbol. I love our appreciation of language. I’ve seen the denomination evolve, in my lifetime, to be much more mission-focused than it used to be, and to become much more inclusive. I’m grateful that in nurturing and supporting my relationship with God in Jesus Christ I am encouraged to think and to formulate my own perspectives.
What do you appreciate about the Episcopal branch of the Jesus movement, and how would you also like to change it?
Worry and anxiety are routine parts of life. Sometimes they can shift from a momentary feeling into a debilitating and painful frame of mind that prevents our ongoing growth, health, and wellbeing. They can play an active role in interrupting our relationship with God. It’s a bit like a loud electrical buzzing that limits our hearing, or a fog settling in, that then limits our sight.
What makes navigating worry and anxiety so tenuous, is that they stem from a place of good intention. They are a natural response to our desire to protect and secure that which we cherish and need; to do the right and responsible thing; to choose the best path. There is a shadow side to these good intentions, and that is a desire to control our lives and futures. Yet control, when we really stop and sit with it, is an allusion. The real choice lies underneath: Will we choose to live in the present or linger in the past or future?
This may be why we see Jesus address the worry and anxiety of his followers so many times in the gospels. Each and every time offering them an alternative way of living in the present. And it all begins in today’s passage.
Mary and Joseph were anxious for the safety of their child. This anxiety stems from their deep yearning to protect and preserve their child, so he might have a long, prosperous, and happy life. Every caregiver can relate to this desire. When children are little, we worry about keeping them safe from harm. When children grow up, we are anxious for their well being. The older our children get, the less we are able to prevent them from experiencing pain, danger, or harm. Caregiving is a journey of loving one’s child more and more, while simultaneously needing to let go and let them live their lives.
Mary, Joseph, and Jesus are nearing this moment when everything will shift in their relationship. As much as they want to keep Jesus safe from harm, we know, as they do deep down, that this is an impossible desire. Their child will live one of the most profoundly beautiful and transformative lives in human history, and it will include pain, danger, and harm.
Yet here in this moment, in today’s passage, they finally find their twelve year old child sitting with the teachers in the temple. When they confront him, he asks- where else would I possibly have been but in God’s house? Maybe a question asked in sincere innocence, or maybe a snarky and moody commentary on his parent’s protectiveness.
Either way, this moment foreshadows much…
This passage, along with several others in the gospels, address our human capacity to live in a state of worry, anxiety, and fear. Mary and Joseph are parents worried about their child’s safety. While we know this is in part responsible parenting, there is also an element of wanting to guarantee the outcome. In later years, Jesus routinely teaches that to find our life, we must lose it. We must lose our lives by letting go of our desire for guarantees. We must release our worries, anxieties, and fears so we can be present, listen, learn, grow, and embody our faith in action.
Later in Jesus' ministry, we witness the rich young man, eager to embrace the Jesus movement.* When he asks what he must do, Jesus tells him to sell all of his possessions. The rich young man could not bear the thought of this. For this young man, like many of us, our property and wealth provide a sense of safety, security, and a near guarantee that we will do well in this life. But to depend on our property and wealth for our well being, is to turn them into a golden calf and worship false gods. Jesus is inviting us to find our safety, security, and fearlessness living the Way of Love.
Not everyone finds their safety and security in belongings, money, or status. For some, we get caught up in the hustle and bustle of doing, seeking to do the most possible good with what time we have in this life. On the surface, this too, is a good intention.
Remember the sisters, Mary and Martha.**. When Jesus comes to their home, Martha gets caught up in all the important work of providing quality hospitality. To the point that she gets annoyed with her sister Mary, for sitting at the feet of Jesus and neglecting to help. When Martha names this concern to Jesus, he addresses her, saying her name not once, but twice. By saying her name two times, Jesus communicates both his love and care for Martha, while also waking her up, to slow down and be present enough to hear what he had to say.
“Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”
Being present was the greater good, in spite of all the good intentions of Martha’s list of tasks.
Twelve year old Jesus pushed back at his mother’s anxiety, while a thirty-something Jesus pushed at his disciples to let go of the worries, anxieties, and fears that drove them off course, and to instead be present in this moment, in this place, in this hour.
This is a message we need to hear on a continual loop. Because there is so much to worry about, or grow anxious over, or to fear:
If we wanted to, we could curate a very lengthy list of worries, anxieties, and fears. And, if you find yourself in the midst of a storm of anxious thoughts- I would invite you to do just that. Put pen to paper and write every single worry, anxiety, fear, and doubt down until you can come up with nothing else. It will take away some of the power behind those thoughts, and quiet your heart and mind. Because when we consciously choose to release ourselves of a particular worry or anxiety, we find new space within us, giving us a bit more inner freedom. An inner freedom to be present. To be present to God and to one another.
Worry and anxiety are a routine part of life. Yet by choosing to be followers of Christ on the Way of Love, we are saying yes to living in the present. It requires a decent amount of self-awareness and reflection. Asking ourselves each and everyday:
As we begin a new year, I invite us to strive to live more and more in the here and now, entrusting our past and our future into the loving hands of our creator. Amen.
* Matthew 19:20-22
Bethlehem would have been anything but a peaceful, idyllic village. Rather, it would have been crowded; homes overflowing with distant relatives; friends reuniting over small outdoor fires with food and spirits. I think it's safe to cross off the word ‘quiet’ as a descriptor for that night.
I also wonder if Luke ever met a woman in childbirth. We’re not exactly quiet. While giving birth is beautiful, it is also loud, messy, and painful.
Mary does not seem to have anyone at her side to help deliver this little one beyond Joseph and a handful of domesticated animals. Animals that would have been rather noisy, smelly, and messy. Sheep baaing, donkey’s braying, cows mooing, and for all we know-- cats meowing, dogs barking, and chickens clucking. This manger was anything but peaceful, clean, or idyllic- so let’s cross those descriptors off too.
Meanwhile, there is an actual chorus of angels singing beyond the village limits, proclaiming this good news, not to the busy village, but to those who lived on the margins. Inviting those outsiders in, foreshadowing the heart of Jesus’ ministry, where again and again Jesus stood first and foremost with those his culture cast aside. This beautiful, beloved, and motley crew of shepherds and their sheep overwhelmed the streets of Bethlehem to go meet the Christ-child.
This scene is anything but serene, peaceful, clean, quiet, and beautiful- at least not in the traditional sense. Rather, the night that Christ was born was complete and utter, holy chaos. And here is why that’s Good News.
The image popular culture lifts up of the night Christ was born has been carefully curated, much like our family photos on Christmas cards or our posts on social media. We have a tendency to put forth the image of ourselves and families that we believe others are expecting, even if behind those images and posts are something much more fragile. We keep hidden to ourselves the depth of our loneliness, the strain in our marriages, the weariness of caregiving, the uncertainty of illness, the exhaustion of depression, the lack of satisfaction and meaning in our work, and so much more. We tuck away in some far off corner of our souls the devastating pain of our world’s brokenness, stunned into stillness as we struggle with the pandemics of economic, racial, and environmental injustice, let alone whatever covid may be doing to upend our lives. We do not know what to do or how to be, as we grapple with our many different weights and burdens. So, we post a beautiful photo on instagram and get a moment of peace; when a friend asks how we are, we say ‘I’m fine, it’s fine, everything is fine.’
Similarly, we often turn to God attempting to be ‘fully put together’. We wait to mindfully engage with God until we are in the right place--whether that be a particular chair in our home, in a church sanctuary, or while walking in nature. We wait to talk to God until we are clear on what to say in our prayer--figuring out exactly what it is we are asking, thanking, or praising God for; or waiting until we can pick up our prayer book and say the proper prayer for the occasion. Sometimes we don’t even dare to talk to God on our own, and instead ask others we trust to do it for us. And if we are carrying too much shame or guilt, we might not even dare think about our prayer, let alone ask someone to pray for us.
All this is to say, that the myth that we must be ‘put together’ in order to approach God, to get real about whatever is happening in our lives is complete and utter bs. And the holy chaos of the night Christ was born is an annual reminder that we do not need to wait to encounter God in the clean, quiet, and put together moments of our lives. God broke forth into the world in a night of absolute and utter holy chaos. And thanks be to God!
Our God understands that life can often be messy, smelly, ugly, and broken. The Christ-child was not born into a perfect, idyllic scene. Rather the Christ-child, God’s love in human flesh, was born into our messiness, into the unwieldy chaos that drives our lives.
When our lives and world are on fire, God is with us.
When we can’t find a way forward and are overwhelmed by it all, God is with us.
Our God understands the true depths of every one of our experiences, and knows what we struggle with in every corner of our being. This is Good News.
I have no interest in worshipping a God who does not fully understand my most profound pain or my most life giving joy. I want to worship our God, who sees us in our messiness, and loves us because of it. I want to worship our God because she sees the brokenness of our world and loves us anyways. Seeing and knowing deeply that we are capable of so much more if we are willing to let Love be our guide.
Because Love is the Way. On that messy, beautiful, night that Christ was born, Love came into the world to show us the Way. Amidst the holy chaos.
Dear ones, on this holiest of nights, how do you see God? Are you looking for the idyllic perfection of the nativity scene to deepen your relationship with God or are you learning to find God in the chaos?How do we train ourselves to look for God in that chaos? Where are you already seeing God in the chaos? What does God’s role in the chaos reveal to us about our God?
As we head into the holy chaos of our lives, may we feel God’s presence in each and every challenging and glorious moment, of this one wild, and precious life. Amen.
Meet our Preachers
Rev. Heather Blais,
Rev. Dr. Molly Scherm, Associate Rector