Monday, February 22, 2010

Strength in the Wilderness

Sermon for 2.21.10 (First Week of Lent)

Please pray with me: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of each of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.

From this morning’s Gospel: “Worship the Lord your God and serve only him.”

Have you ever felt that things were going really well, that all your ducks were in a row, and then suddenly, everything starts to fall apart? You lose a job or don’t get the one you wanted; there are family problems, health problems you hadn’t expected; you begin to wonder what you are doing with your life. You may have achieved all your goals and yet still feel something is missing. And so you enter your own wilderness, you find yourself walking through a period so dry that you can feel the sand in your mouth and the horizon keeps receding. If you have ever experienced this, then our Lenten readings are probably for you.

One could say this is what happens to Jesus in this morning’s Gospel from Luke. Just after he has been baptized in the Jordan by his cousin John, the Holy Spirit in a visible form has descended on him and identified him as God’s beloved son! We don’t know whether anyone else was aware of what happened, but clearly Jesus has had a visionary experience. And Luke reports that Jesus feels “full of the Holy Spirit,” as well he might. But then the Holy Spirit leads him into the wilderness and that is a very different experience. When we are told that it lasts for 40 days, Luke means that it went on for a long time, reminding us of the 40 years that the children of Israel spent in their wilderness trying to create a new life after their slavery in Egypt. Unlike them, however, Jesus is not fed by manna and he is understandably famished and weak. Were he not, he would not be human. His humanness is important here.

During this period, Luke tells us that the Devil tempts him. That may be a stumbling block for many of us. Who is this Devil? Do we want to believe in him? Luke probably thinks of him as the Lord—a kind of head honcho—of the demons and unclean spirits that Jesus will encounter in so many of his crowd scenes. We encounter them ourselves and in ourselves—not only in the mentally ill. This unsavory figure pretends to have power, people give power to him, and mischief is certainly caused as a result, and he is meant to personify evil. He is a symbol of what Jesus will have to confront in his ministry. Some Bible scholars argue that these temptations didn’t even happen. After all, Jesus doesn’t report the event himself and there are no other eyewitnesses. The story may have been created through combining the well-known testing of Job with a series of actual verbal challenges that are recorded throughout the Gospel of John. The story also has the same kind of power that our Westerns do: good guy vs. bad.

I’m not trying to question Scripture. But I do want to suggest that this is not a story about temptations as we often understand the word: “My, that second piece of cake is tempting.” What matters here, I think, is that Luke is using materials legitimate for his time to show us his portrait of Jesus, to show us Jesus sorting out the words that he heard at his baptism and even his inner struggle over the implications of these words: What does it mean to be God’s chosen? It also helps to remember that the Spirit led him into this time of retreat. This is necessary prayer work. And in fact the devil or—if you’ll permit me—the inner voice actually proposes some fairly legitimate scenarios.

If Jesus is hungry; why not use some of his own power to feed himself? Moreover, if he can turn stones into bread, he will be able to feed all those poor hungry people who will soon be thronging around him. Moses fed his people. Isn’t Jesus at least as responsible a leader? As for the kingdoms of the world: Most of the known world was cruelly oppressed by Rome. Why shouldn’t Jesus use his power for good by overthrowing that kingdom as many hoped the Messiah would do? Finally, that inner voice reminds him of the very 91st Psalm that we prayed this morning. Go to the temple in Jerusalem, the tempter says, and by flinging yourself down right before the priests show everyone what God’s Chosen can do. The Psalm says that the angels will catch you.

Jesus says no to each suggestion and finds strength in his wilderness because he is unwilling to test God, is unwilling to trust God only if God performs certain tricks on demand, like changing stones into bread or rescuing someone from a gratuitously rash action. Nor can Jesus take on Rome by entering its political arena. Ultimately Jesus will say yes to each of these suggestions, but in God’s way: He will feed the 5,000; he will challenge all political systems that are not modeled on justice and peace; and he will climb the cross and empty the tomb to show God’s high regard for saving life.

Luke ends his account on a true reality-series note by telling us that the devil departed from him but only “until an opportune time.” These impulses to test God, to put one’s own ambitions or abilities first, or to shut down when the demands get too great will become evident again at the end of Luke when Jesus goes to the Garden of Gethsemane and urges his disciples to “pray that you may not enter into temptation.” He himself initially prays to be delivered from the crucifixion.

But what happens in the Garden, like what happens in our passage this morning, is really about the responses that Jesus gives under pressure. If Jesus uses this time, at the beginning of his ministry, to decide what kind of responses he is going to offer to God, we can also use our reading of this passage to decide what kind of responses we will offer as followers of Jesus. We too have been baptized and on the second Sunday after Epiphany had the chance to reaffirm our baptismal vows. Like Jesus, we have very human needs and wants. But we often turn most whole-heartedly to God when we are in our own wildernesses.

Maybe that is just as well, even though such behavior could be described as mercenary—we’re in it for what we can get. When we’re in trouble, we sometimes have to relinquish our whole way of looking at things. We must let go of all of our need to be in control, of all of our presences, even what we consider our accomplishments. We must take seriously our petition, “Thy will be done,” just as Jesus remembers the teachings from Deuteronomy: “One does not live by bread alone”; “Worship the Lord your God and serve only him”; and “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”

Our story this morning and the three challenges presented to Jesus uncover the way in which evil thrives on distortions and lies: wants are seen as needs (one can turn stones into bread), falsehoods claim to be truths (one can gain influence through power), and our faith is presented as something that we challenge God to earn. We encounter such distortions and lies all the time. But Jesus trusts God’s word alone and God’s unfolding directions; he worships and serves only Him. For us to do that may well take the rest of our earthly lives and beyond. But Jesus’ responses to the questions that tempted him can strengthen us in our dry times here and now. As we return again and again to the Lord our God, evil—by whatever name we call it—does not have charge over us.

Let us pray: Dearest God, You are our refuge and our fortress and your angels have charge over us, to guard us in all our ways. Help us to be more receptive to your grace. Help us turn towards you always and not only during our trials and temptations. Let us remember that you are the strong and faithful God who goes with us into the wilderness and the God who leads us through it. Amen.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Time with God

Sermon for Transfiguration, 2.14.10

Please pray with me: May we turn and listen when you call; may we open our eyes to see what you have given; may we let you live in us so that people, knowing us, may also know you. Amen.

From today’s Gospel: “And while [Jesus] was praying, the appearance of his face changed and his clothes became dazzling white.”

You’ve made a choice to come here this morning—at least I assume most of you have come of your own free will. Many of you make that choice every Sunday. In doing so, you’re like Jesus. You’re making the Jesus-like choice to dedicate a time to God on a regular basis and to see what God has in mind.

In Luke this morning, Jesus takes his best friends up a mountain—in other words, away from the crowds—so that he can have some piece and quiet and get down to what he really needs, which is to pray. Peter, John, and James probably could have used some prayer time too, but what happened to them is what can happen to me: Given a little time for prayer, a chance to close my eyes and relax, my system tells me it’s the perfect time to take a nap, and off I go. That’s exactly what happens to the disciples. Now naps are the chocolate of the soul—but prayer is too, and sometimes it’s helpful not to be too comfortable when you’re serious about it. The disciples start to nod off and miss some of what happens next. Jesus, on the other hand, enters deeply into prayer as he always does at crucial times. Here he is preparing to begin the trip to Jerusalem that will end in crucifixion.

As he prays, something wonderful happens: His face and even his clothes begin to glow. There’s a radiance about him. We don’t really know what he’s feeling or even how conscious he is of how he has changed. But the disciples notice; there’s no more talk about how sleepy they are. They also see that he’s not alone. They’re able to identify the two striking men who are with him as Moses and Elijah, two great heroes from the past. They probably don’t hear the conversation. They don’t grasp the significance of this “departure which Jesus was able to accomplish at Jerusalem,” and they’re not ready to accept that Jesus will have to die. All they know is that something important is happening. It’s big enough so that, for the time being, they keep it a secret.

It’s important that Jesus is not alone at this time in his life. The friends in whom he often confides—Peter, John, James— are with him, even if they don’t quite get what’s about to happen. But even more important is that Moses and Elijah have come to be with him and to speak about what will happen during Holy Week and Good Friday. They’re as close to being his equals as we can imagine. Are they offering comfort? Supporting his determination to do what he must do? Giving him moral support? We don’t know. What we do know is that God has the last word: From a cloud the disciples suddenly hear, “This is my Son, My Chosen. Listen to him.”

Sounds like marching orders. And I don’t think the experience is totally new. Remember the crucial times when, during prayer, you haven’t been alone either. Sometimes memories come of people important to us—a strong sense of their presence or of words they’ve spoken. Sometimes during or after prayer, there’s a wonderful knowledge that God is with us; everything around us seems brighter and clearer. Sometimes there’s an unexpected phone call that seems like an angel message straight from God.

My mother had a particular love for one of her grandmothers. She was always in some physical pain and her life was sustained by prayer. Every morning after breakfast, she would go back to her bedroom to pray. As a small child, my mother would wait outside until she had finished. She loved seeing her come out of her room because, she said, Grandma’s face always glowed. I believe this was something that my mother really saw. She realized that private morning prayer was this woman’s way of life. Even a young child like my mother was impressed by how this time alone with God was a strength and comfort. I have seen faces glow during a church service, and this is all the more striking because I have sometimes known that the person was in real physical or emotional pain.

Regular prayer can be part of a way of life, as it was for Jesus. For centuries, the Church has called doing so a Rule of Life. Sometimes in monasteries, the rule was pretty strict. But really a Rule of Life is not a matter of ought and should. It’s more like a measuring line that we can use as a guide, the way we do when laying out plans for a room or a building. In his autobiography, St. Augustine prayed that God would make him into a house, fit for God to enter.

Like Jesus, when we feel a longing or a need to feel God’s presence with us, a regular practice of having already done so can be a huge help. I’m thinking of the role that the 23rd Psalm has played in my life. I pray it every morning and sometimes I know I’m just saying the words. Then suddenly there will be that day when a line will strike me in a totally new way. One morning, several months before I had even heard of Port Ewen, I realized that rather than saying, “God restores my soul,” I was saying, “God is restoring my soul.” With those words, I was aware of a lightening and a healing of my spirit, and it was wonderful. I don’t think it’s an accident that the call to come to this church followed soon after.

So the best way to start a Rule of Life is probably to notice what we’ve been doing all along, to be proud of it and to claim it as an important part of our life with God: Church on Sunday, prayer when we wake up in the morning and right before sleep, regular thanks to God during the day and when we sit down to eat, some reading of The Upper Room and of Scripture, finding ourselves humming a hymn every once in a while. If we’re doing any of this, we’ve already begun the awesome practice of a Rule of Life, a relationship with God aided and abetted by the Holy Spirit. We are being formed by God. St. Paul would say, we’re “being transformed… from one degree of glory to another.”

Can each of us do more? Can we fight the temptation to fall asleep on God and miss important moments of our own possible faith journey? Of course. You know I’m not going to let us enter Lent without hoping that each of us will extend ourselves a little. The point of Lent isn’t deprivation, subtraction. And here’s the thing: Because it’s a limited period, it can be a safe window in which to try an additional devotion as a grace or a blessing. Far better than fasting during Lent—with the real intent of losing weight—might be making more time to write in a journal, or go for a walk or a run to secure a place apart for ourselves where we can be attentive to God and God’s creation. If we want to fast, we can fast from our cell phones or the internet or—you name it—to make more space for actually getting down to prayer. We can fast from our consumerism and make different spending and giving choices. All that we do can be transformed.

Here’s another thing about a real McCoy Rule of Life: It’s nobody’s business but yours and God’s. Discuss it with a friend or pastor, but only if you like. It isn’t something to beat yourself up over and it certainly shouldn’t be a way to set yourself up for failure.

It also isn’t only prayer and study. The third ingredient is the kind of deeds that you, as a congregation are so good at. I was thinking this week that our Mailbox Ministry is a glorious way in which prayer and outreach become one. I am hoping that we will be able to welcome the larger community of Port Ewen to a simple supper at some point during Lent.

After all, the Gospel this morning doesn’t end until Jesus connects his time of prayer, transfiguration, and holy, distinguished conversation with an act of mercy and of healing. The very next day, he’s verbally assaulted by a man crazed with grief over his son’s dementia. For whatever reasons, the other disciples have failed. But Jesus heals him, transforms—even transfigures—him into a normal boy. You can’t tell me that the faces of both father and son didn’t glow.

We too can be formed in the presence of Christ. This will be our Easter blessing and our Easter challenge. And even before Jesus reaches Jerusalem, he shows us how to be faithful in spiritual disciplines that bring him and us into the presence of the Father. It is Jesus’ promise that as we are faithful to his example and to his mission, we too, here and now, will be transfigured. And then, you may be sure, there will be a call to use this gift!

Let us pray: Lord, it is good to be here and to remember your faithfulness as well as your glory. Help us to see you for who you really are, the Chosen One of God. Help us to listen to you, to walk in your light, and to carry your mercy into the world. Amen.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Going Deeper

Sermon for 2.7.10, Fifth Sunday after Epiphany
Isaiah 6.1-13; Psalm 138; 1 Corinthians 15.1-11; Luke 5.1-11

Please pray with me: Dearest Lord, in our meditation on your scripture, may your word be heard; in the thoughts of our hearts, may your word be known; in the faithfulness of our lives, may your word be shown. Amen.

From this morning’s Gospel: “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.”

Thanks to the Scripture this week, I’ve been thinking of experiences that take my breath away, that fill me with awe: Fresh-fallen snow and clearing sky after a heavy storm; the Vineyard sound when I get to see it again each July; my memory of the open, active volcano crater on Hawaii’s Big Island and, around it, the ever-widening fissures pushing steam and gases up through the earth. Awe-filled moments are hard to forget. You’ll have your own versions. For me, there’s always something of resident power in each of these scenes that makes me feel my own vulnerability, even some fright: harsh weather threatens life, the ocean must always be respected, and volcano-watching should not be a casual activity.

That tension between admiration and fear is at the heart of Isaiah’s experience and also Peter’s. Such tension is actually a pretty good definition of awe: mingled reverence, dread, and wonder. And we’re being shown this week that such conflicting and powerful emotions are part of our relationship with our God who is awesome, not to be trifled with. I wonder how often we squarely face the fact that we are loved by and in turn love a God whose immediate presence would be too dazzling for us to bear. The Scripture for next week will build on that realization. Today we are asked to take the experience of awe seriously as two great Biblical figures are changed, transformed by their encounter—their epiphanies—with God.

It’s worth noting that Isaiah is in the temple—in church—when his epiphany occurs. Not a bad place to encounter grace! In fact, Isaiah’s probably only in the doorway since he tells us that “the hem of [God’s] robe filled the temple.” Think scale for a second and imagine how huge a figure would need to be for just his or her hem to fill a large interior. The Divine Figure here is incomprehensible and yet the Divine has also given Isaiah ways to know him. Here a formal and beautiful service is going on: There is the hymn of praise, “Holy, holy, holy,” sung by a choir that shakes the foundations, and there is the smoke from the offering. Perhaps Isaiah’s cry of confession comes because he is so awed by what he is experiencing: “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” He’s packing a lot into that confession: We don’t know exactly what “unclean lips” means, but Isaiah sees clearly that neither he nor his society has been obeying God’s commands. But even so, he realizes that God or at least God’s messengers have appeared to him.

His feelings of being both lost and found are confirmed by the ritual of purification that follows. Just as Isaiah would not have been able to bear the direct sight of God’s burning glory, so he could not bear the burning coal directly from God. For these reasons, God sends one of the Seraphs as a mediator, a messenger, first to wield those terrible tongs and then to speak the words of assurance: “Your sin is blotted out.” Isaiah doesn’t promise to try to be better; he confesses his fault and is then transformed by a power vastly beyond anything he could have imagined before his vision.

Isaiah was not only changed by repentance. That in itself can be powerfully troubling, even painful. Isaiah has now not simply been forgiven and folded into a safe, holy world. He will be transformed for his call and that too will be troubling and painful. Now Isaiah hears the actual voice of God and God’s directions are like the parables that are so hard to understand: God commands Isaiah to tell the people to “keep listening, but do not comprehend; keep looking, but do not understand.” God no longer seems to be warning the people to repent; God’s new prophet Isaiah is to preach judgment, to proclaim God’s “no” because they so often only wanted to hear a “yes.” Poor Isaiah even asks God how long he will have to preach in this way, and again, the answer is blunt and realistic. The people need to hear that there is judgment.

By the end of God’s speech, even the saving remnant—the best 10 %—will be burned away. But despite darkness, 9/11s, Haitis, or the darkness of the cross, there is a ray of light. In the words of this passage, God tells Isaiah that a stump will be left and from that stump the holy seed will spring.

The Jesus, whom we meet on the lakeshore in Luke, is that holy seed, the Beloved Son with whom the Father is well pleased and whom the Father sent so that Divinity could be among us. In this passage too there may be a kind of worship going on as Jesus teaches the crowds that gather to hear him, but it’s a realistic scene, in the fresh early morning as the fishermen are cleaning their nets after a night’s work. Jesus seems perfectly accessible, a simple man of flesh and blood. And then mystery and power enter the passage. Jesus commands Peter to go back out onto the water, the deep water, and start fishing again. Peter protests that they’ve been trying all night with no results. But he does as he is told and, as we all know, they catch so many that their nets began to break and their boats began to sink.

At this point, Peter, like Isaiah before him, realizes that he is in the presence of something far beyond him. “Depart from me, Lord,” he says, “for I am a sinful man.” Notice that Peter now calls Jesus not “Master” or “sir,” but “Lord”—kyrios—a word of high respect. His fear is so great that he uses the same word that Jesus had used in exorcising a demon just one chapter earlier: “Depart!” We don’t know what sins Peter might have been hiding, but Peter certainly realized that there can be no secrets from someone like this miracle worker. Better admit to the worst right away and have done with it: “I am a sinful man.” Maybe then this Jesus will leave him alone.

On the other hand, maybe it was an epiphany that drove Peter to his knees, a humble admission that he is a normal, fault-filled person who can only capitulate before this stranger whose power is surely divine. Jesus responds by saying, “Do not be afraid.” This is what angels usually say to mortals. And they probably say it because on some level we really should be, not because of who they are but because of who we have been. But Jesus, who is capable of the power that Isaiah encountered in the temple, was sent to live among us and be a Lord whom we could know and love. He can speak directly to Peter. Jesus wants Peter to move forward into his true vocation and so he simply tells him, “From now on you will be catching people.” And Peter and the others leave everything and follow him. There is no burning coal for Peter, at least not yet. But he will be drawn from his mundane life into waters far deeper than he ever expected.

And what of us? In just 10 days, on Ash Wednesday, we’ll be reminded that we too are simply mortal. What awe do we feel before the divine presence, even before the divine presence of our dear Lord Jesus? What do we need to leave behind so that we can follow his call? How can we become more attentive? As we prepare to hear the great story of Jesus’ Transfiguration next Sunday and then begin the final journey to Jerusalem with him, we can surely take some time for looking and listening and for allowing God to call us in God’s own way and time.

Let us pray: We thank you, dearest Lord, that you do not give us brightness that is too dazzling for us to bear or allow us to live in darkness that shuts out every hope. Be with us as we move through each day. Help us to know that we receive our life from a power beyond ourselves and that we live by a life that is not our own. Amen.

(With thanks to Bonnie Thurston)

Monday, February 1, 2010

God Chooses

Sermon for Fourth Sunday of Epiphany (1.31.10)
Jeremiah 1.4-10; Psalm 71.1-6; 1 Corinthians 13.1-13; Luke 4.21-30

Please pray with me: Dear God, May we turn and listen when you call; may we open our eyes to see what you have given; may we let you live in us so that people, knowing us, may also know you. Amen.

From today’s New Testament Lesson: Love “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”

Last weekend, I finally saw Avatar. Now I can’t see a film without wanting to critique it, but as you can imagine—knowing my passion for the earth—there was much in this story that pulled me in. Afterwards I kept thinking of the enormous energy shared by the native people of Pandora and the creatures among whom they live and with many of whom they hook up. It’s wonderful, if a little scary: Each person’s head has a long braid ending in tendrils that are alive with nerves. By plugging these long braids into similar neural cords that hang from giant animals and birds, the Na’vi achieve union with them. The coupling isn’t easy, but, when successful, the thoughts of the Na’vi now govern the creatures’ behavior. And it isn’t brute conquest. This bonding, blatantly physical as it is, is possible because of the deep spiritual interconnection among all living things in that world.

There is something of this raw energy in our psalm today. Even from our translation, we realize that the speaker is up against it, terrified, and not for the first time. But there’s more. This is not a politely-worded cry for help. Throughout his life, the psalmist has known that God’s power to rescue is loving but also very physical. So when he asks God to “deliver me,” in verse 2, the verb really means “snatch.” In a tough world, God, you’re going to have to reach down and snatch me away from, tear me from, those who now grasp me with their own wicked hands (in verse 4).

Then, the psalmist adds, what I also need, God, is “a strong fortress.” Fortress is a wonderful—and traditional—metaphor for protection, but what it means is the need, the requirement for a sturdy place, a safe place, a sacred space which a person can always find, a place where that person is held in God’s hand. After all, life began in God’s hands. Verse 6 tells us that “it was you who took me from my mother’s womb.” But our translation is once more too abstract. The Hebrew might better be translated, you were the one who “pulled me out of” my mother’s womb, or even who “cut me out.” This is not some vague comforting memory. It insists that God’s power and love are physically present for us. More like: I am alive because you wanted me to exist, you chose me to be. The point, I think, isn’t so much that the psalmist wants us to think of God as rough and tough. But, on the other hand, it isn’t a polite gloves-on exchange either to someone we hope might be listening. The person praying this prayer has strong needs and, through faith, must believe that The Creator is strong and present.

The words put in Jeremiah’s mouth by the Lord confirm both strength and presence. We don’t know how young Jeremiah was. But like Moses, he feels insecure amd frightened: “Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.” The answer is that of a Commanding Officer who is not aloof but active and engaged in the lives of his people, a CO to whom, through respect, fear, and experience, one can only say “yes.” And so God replies, “Do not say, ‘I am only a boy’; for you shall go to all to whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you. Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you”—to snatch you away from danger. And the reason is that you are mine.

C.S. Lewis answers question about our relationship with God in words too direct to ignore: “God made us,” writes Lewis, “invented us as a man invents an engine. A car is made to run on gasoline, and it would not run properly on anything else. Now God designed the human machine to run on Himself. He Himself is the fuel our spirits were designed to burn, or the food our spirits were designed to feed on. There is no other” (Mere Christianity, 39). So God will lift us up, as on eagle’s wings—and with the help of eagle’s claws because we are God’s and therefore God cares.

So much so that God made God’s physical presence known on this earth through the incarnation of our Lord. Where then is the energy in our meeting with Jesus in the Gospel today? This passage is amazing. I’m sure you recognized it as the second half of the Gospel lesson from last week. Last week, all was well in the synagogue after Jesus finished reading. There was the kind of stunned silence that can mean that the words have sunk in. After their epiphany, there was the happy conversation about it. People were amazed by this young man who had simply been seen as “Joseph’s son.” I don’t hear any sarcasm in that remark. The trouble hasn’t started yet.

It’s Jesus, in fact, who stirs things up. By the time he’s finished speaking, they are “filled with rage.” Why doesn’t Jesus let well enough alone? Because like Jeremiah, words have been put in his mouth and he cannot be afraid. “I’m not going to let you accept me as your hometown boy. I haven’t been sent just for you.” He’s actually pretty heavy-handed. Not once but twice, he reminds them that the prophets Elijah and Elisha were not sent to the widows and lepers of Israel—“to none of them…none of them”—but to unbelievers. This is a new narrative for Jesus’ neighbors. A message to dismantle the status quo requires a new understanding that can be too much to bear. And so, in a move that Satan in the desert temptations would have applauded, they try to hurl him off a cliff at the edge of town. In a way that we don’t really need to understand, Jesus was able to pass through them and go on his way—to much harsher moments, as we know.

What about us? Does our faith—do our prayers—raise questions that are hard to bear? Certainly our lives do, and so like Jeremiah, the psalmist, and Jesus himself, we ask God for help. Sometimes it seems that the deeper we go into our time with God, the more challenging are the demands that God throws back. A real life with God is not always comfortable. Maybe Epiphany has a side that’s a little tougher than basking in this glorious light that we have been given. That real side of life with God is clearly explained in the familiar passage from I Corinthians.

This passage, which does not mention God or Christ, can easily seem like the perfect manual for human relationships. That’s probably why it’s often used at weddings. But we should also remember that it is part of Paul’s letter to his difficult church in the sophisticated and pagan city of Corinth. Here, in a pastoral crisis, he is calling them to account for their behavior. Various members there were doing everything Paul said love or caritas should not do. They were boastful, competitive about their various spiritual gifts, still interested in the mysterious religions of their culture, and condescending to the poorer members of their community.

The whole letter makes it clear that the love that Paul is describing is the love of which Christ gave us an example, in fact the love of God revealed in the cross: “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” It’s not an emotion or feeling, this love. It’s an action that seeks the good of another. It is not one more spiritual gift, but the way through which God wants us to live out each of our gifts. It’s the basic deal maker or breaker, and without it, as Paul says more than once, “I am nothing…I gain nothing”—or most pointedly of all, I’m just so much ugly, pointless noise—“a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.”

God snatches us from harm so that we can live in and live out the fullness of Christ’s love. Fullness of love is not a bargain; it’s what God longs for. This is what God has chosen for us, each doing so in our own way. Martin Luther was fond of saying that since parenting was a Christian vocation, even changing diapers is for the glory of God. One of my favorite theologians, Karl Barth, spoke of vocation—God’s choice for us—as “fellowship with Jesus Christ…and therefore” service to God and our fellow creatures. Vocation, so understood, gives us so many options. Maybe this is the true gift of Epiphany: recognizing that the light of Christ, the radical loving grace of Christ must transform all that we do.

Let us pray: Dearest Lord, when we are distressed, help us to remember that you are there; when we are afraid for ourselves or others, let us remember the sanctuary your strong love provides; when we despair of “getting it right,” let us remember that we are chosen to be agents of God’s love in this world, working in fellowship with and for one another. Amen.