My grandsons have each had their imaginations sparked by all manner of superheroes over the years, the world encourages this too, super power puppies, superman, spiderman, wonder woman, 4 leaf clovers, spirit animals…the list goes on. Jeremiah reminds us that God’s power is in us, we are not in need of the world’s superpowers.
I wonder if Jesus gave us the gift of the Holy Spirit when he left this earth as a way for to tune in to that super power Jeremiah was talking about. Jesus knew we would need further teaching, slow to learn we humans are! You might feel the HS’s presence in a beautiful sunset, or in the deer that stops in the field, and turns it’s gaze to you.
Do you ever (like me) hear the voice of the Holy Spirit whispering in your ear? Things like “it might be hurtful to say that”, or “keep going you’re getting stronger every day”, or “take more time to think that thru maybe it’s time to take a different path”? In these last Pandemic Years, the HS has helped us to imagine how to continue to walk the way of love safely, in spite of danger, conflict and fear. Perhaps, for you, God, in the Holy Spirit is less subtle, sometimes she grabs me by the shoulders and shakes, hard!
In today’s Gospel story from Luke we are given part 2 of Jesus’ return to his hometown of Nazareth. I’m thinking that the gospel editors thought this visit was important, since they made it a 2- part series, Netflix style.
Last Sunday we tuned in to Episode 1: (Luke 4; 14-21), Jesus attends his usual hometown synagogue worship and stands up to read….as was his custom. He reads from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah. Isaiah wrote that a prophet had been anointed to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind and to let the oppressed go free. Then Jesus rolls up the scroll, hands it to the attendant and, like a usual lector, sits down. The congregation stares at him, amazed, and then he adds, (I imagine him standing up again in the Synagogue), “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” In other words…here I am.
And now for episode 2, today we hear first that they were indeed amazed and appreciative of his gracious words, but it takes only a moment for their thoughts to turn to a challenge, “if you are this expected prophet, they say, why don’t you prove yourself, here in your hometown, where you belong. His community wanted him to perform healing miracles for them. Jesus responds by explaining that prophets of the past were also faced with many human tragedies, much as we are today. Many suffered from the debilitating disease of leprosy (what is now called Hansen’s Disease), and yet the prophet Elisha healed only Naaman with a simple act, sending him to wash in the Jordan River. Naaman was angry that Elisha didn’t give him special treatment, but his servants begged him to repent and obey the prophet. Naaman set aside his pride, washed and was healed.
When a poor widow offers the prophet Elijah hospitality and her last piece of bread, he blesses her with the assurance that she will never be hungry again. God’s mercy had been extended far beyond Elijah’s hometown, to an unlikely woman (a woman of great faith), in a foreign place.
Of course Jesus was famous for many miracles also, a few were grand and huge, (all those people fed on the beach with a few crusts of bread and some fish), but most were quiet personal acts of healing and mercy: washing the disciples feet, the healing miracles: a man with leprosy, Peter’s mother in law sick with fever, and the woman who had hemorrhaged for 12 years. Jesus restored sight and speech and movement to individuals of great faith, and maybe my favorite (although I can never choose), the Samaritan woman at the well who was desperate for a satisfying life and the assurance of God’s endless grace and forgiveness. Jews did not associate with Samaritans, and as a female, she was demeaned by society. Drawing water alone, she was a social outcast in her own community. When Jesus offered her living water (the assurance of God’s endless grace) she believed, and she ran off to tell others. These individuals, (in some way or other unlikely people, considered unclean, foreign, undesirable), these individuals are forever changed by Jesus’ love for them.
The neighbors in Jesus’ hometown didn’t want to hear this message, they were so angry that they tried to hurl him off a cliff! They do not feel like sharing him. They want this miracle-maker to stay here where he belongs. They are not interested in the message that God’s healing superpower is for everyone, everywhere.
And isn’t this perhaps what Jesus was trying to teach in the synagogue that day, that God had sent him with a different plan, I think to teach that we have this superpower, the power to cleanse and heal the world ourselves, with love, sent on by the Holy Spirit whispering to us, one small, loving, ordinary gesture at a time.
There will always be the poor, the sick, the lonely. What small acts of love-power can we muster up, in places familiar and unfamiliar, to promote healing in the world? God knows us, loves us, empowers us and is with us, always.
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
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